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Thanks @puneetgirdhar for reminding me about the Stockdale Paradox

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Sometimes it takes a good friend to remind you about your own confidence……

The Stockdale Paradox is named after admiral Jim Stockdale, who was a United States military officer help captive for eight years during the Vietnam War. Stockdale was tortured more than twenty times by his captors, and never had much reason to believe he would survive the prison camp and someday get to see his wife again. And yet, as Stockdale told Jim Collins (“Good to Great“), he never lost faith during his ordeal: “I never doubted not only that I would get out, but also that I would prevail in the end and turn the experience into the defining event of my life, which, in retrospect, I would not trade.”

Then comes the paradox: While Stockdale had remarkable faith in the unknowable, he noted that it was always the most optimistic of his prisonmates who failed to make it out of there alive. “They were the ones who said, ‘We’re going to be out by Christmas.’ And Christmas would come, and Christmas would go. Then they’d say, ‘We’re going to be out by Easter.’ And Easter would come, and Easter would go. And then Thanksgiving, and then it would be Christmas again. And they died of a broken heart.”

What the optimists failed to do was confront the reality of their situation. They preferred the ostrich approach, sticking their heads in the sand and hoping for the difficulties to go away. That self-delusion might have made it easier on them in the short-term, but when they were eventually forced to face reality, it had become too much and they couldn’t handle it.

Stockdale approached adversity with a very different mindset. He accepted the reality of his situation. He knew he was in hell, but, rather than bury his head in the sand, he stepped up and did everything he could to lift the morale and prolong the lives of his fellow prisoners. He created a tapping code so they could communicate with each other. He developed a milestone system that helped them deal with torture. And he sent intelligence information to his wife, hidden in the seemingly innocent letters he wrote.

Collins and his team observed a similar mindset in the good-to-great companies. They labeled it the Stockdale Paradox and described it like so:

You must retain faith that you will prevail in the end, regardless of the difficulties.
AND at the same time…
You must confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be.

Now of course, nobody likes admitting that they’re fat, that they’re broke, that they’ve chosen the wrong career or that their marriage is falling apart. But admitting such truths is an absolute necessity if you want to grow and improve. It might feel like you’re taking a few steps backward by doing so, but you can view that retreat as the pull-back on a sling shot: you’re just setting yourself up to make significant progress down the road.

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Written by Sid Shah

October 12, 2010 at 3:17 pm

Posted in Business, People

One Response

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  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Niraj Shah, Sid Shah. Sid Shah said: Thanks @puneetgirdhar for reminding me about the Stockdale Paradox: http://wp.me/pREI4-3j […]


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