How the Stockdale paradox can help us get through this
Plus 4 running challenges that'll take you (virtually) across California, Colorado, North Carolina and the entire U.S.A., from San Francisco to New York City.
“For nothing is fixed, forever and forever, it is not fixed; the earth is always shifting, the light is always changing, the sea does not cease to grind down rock. Generations do not cease to be born, and we are responsible to them because we are the only witnesses they have. The sea rises, the light fails, lovers cling to each other and children cling to us. The moment we cease to hold each other, the moment we break faith with one another, the sea engulfs us and the light goes out.”
— James Baldwin
If you’re familiar at all with the work of business author Jim Collins, there’s a good chance you’ve heard of the “Stockdale paradox.”
The man for which it’s named is James Stockdale, an admiral in the U.S. Navy who was captured, tortured and imprisoned for more than seven years during the height of the Vietnam War.
Collins met Stockdale as he was writing his 2001 book Good to Great, and describes the conversation in which he learned the most important lesson about the admiral’s experience:
Admiral Jim Stockdale was the highest-ranking military officer in the Hanoi Hilton. He was there for, I think, seven years, from 1968 to 1974. He was tortured over twenty times. And by his own account, Stockdale came out of the prison camp even stronger than he went in.
In preparation for a day I got to spend with Jim Stockdale, I read his book In Love and War. As I read this book, I found myself getting depressed because it seemed like his systemic constraints were so severe, and there was never going to be any end to it. His captors could come in any day and torture him. He had no sense of whether, or if, he would ever get out of the prison camp. Absolutely depressing situation. It’s like we can all survive anything as long as we know it will come to an end, we know when, and we have a sense of control. He had none of that.
Then all of a sudden it dawned on me, “Wait a minute, I’m getting depressed reading this book, and I know the end of the story. I know he gets out. I know he reunites with his family. I know he becomes a national hero. And I even know that we’re going to have lunch on the beautiful Stanford campus on Monday. How did he not let those oppressive circumstances beat him down? How did he not get depressed?” And I asked him.
He said, “Well, you have to understand, it was never depressing. Because despite all those circumstances, I never ever wavered in my absolute faith that not only would I prevail—get out of this—but I would also prevail by turning it into the defining event of my life that would make me a stronger and better person.”
You’re probably thinking to yourself, well of course we can expect a high-ranking Navy admiral to emerge from a situation like this. But a normal, ordinary civilian like me? How could I expect to?
That’s when the really fascinating part of the conversation Collins had with Stockdale caught my attention. He shows us that each of us has the same reserve of power and mental strength he found in himself:
A little later in the conversation, after I’d absorbed that and said nothing for about five minutes because I was just stunned, I asked him who didn’t make it out of those systemic circumstances as well as he had.
He said, “Oh, it’s easy. I can tell you who didn’t make it out. It was the optimists.”
And I said, “I’m really confused, Admiral Stockdale.”
He said, “The optimists. Yes. They were the ones who always said, ‘We’re going to be out by Christmas.’ Christmas would come and it would go. And there would be another Christmas. And they died of a broken heart.”
Then he grabbed me by the shoulders and he said, “This is what I learned from those years in the prison camp, where all those constraints just were oppressive. You must never ever ever confuse, on the one hand, the need for absolute, unwavering faith that you can prevail despite those constraints with, on the other hand, the need for the discipline to begin by confronting the brutal facts, whatever they are.”
In other words, as Stockdale told Collins, “we’re not getting out of here by Christmas.”
Reading those words, I can see why they might sound depressing. But actually, they’re empowering. Because nothing short of seeing reality for what it actually is, looking it right in the face, can help us move forward.
That goes for our personal health and fitness we improve through running, our overall mental health, and for the nation we’re all watching go through gut-wrenching trauma right now.
As Stockdale might tell us if he were alive today, it’s only by refusing to look away — by confronting the reality of what is happening with eyes wide open, that we can turn it into a defining event that can transform our lives.
Yesterday, my wife and stepdaughter and I were in the car with our six-year-old son. My wife had been talking with him about the protests he’d seen on TV, and about racism at a level he could understand.
What was wrong, my son said, is people had forgotten to listen to “Martin Luther King’s rules,” as his kindergarten class had learned about King earlier this year.
He understood what it meant when people to hurt one another, how wrong it is for one group to oppress another. When you do that, he said, you’re trying to “destroy someone else’s world.”
Then he said something I’ll never forget: “And when you try to destroy someone else’s world, you destroy your world.”
I couldn’t believe my ears when I heard it, but I’m telling you the absolute truth that my six-year-old said those words.
As always, my friends, let me know how you are, how your running is going and the races and challenges you’re trying out — and keep in touch!
Virtual races you might love running
Get together a team of up to two dozen running buddies for this virtual run from San Francisco to New York — 3,107 miles to be exact, or about 5,000 kilometers. Between June 20 and September 14, chip away at the miles and upload them so you can see your progress and your team’s, as you make your way from Point Lobos on the Pacific coast to Fort Tilden in Queens, N.Y.
$50 | Sign up here
A 475-mile running challenge that doubles as a fundraiser for North Carolina food banks and hunger relief programs. You’ll run (or walk) from the Blue Ridge mountains to the coast of North Carolina, where you’ll finish your 475-mile trek at Wrightsville Beach — the run will take 6 months, which means you can run as little as 18 miles a week, or 2.75 miles per day.
$39 | Sign up here
Run, hike or walk across the state of Colorado. You can run individually or as part of a 2- to 4-person team along the length of the Colorado Trail, the Front Range mountains, or choose from a few other challenges like the Nolan’s 14, in which you’ll virtually climb fourteen of the “fourteeners” along the Sawatch mountain range. The challenges take place through September.
$30 - $40 | Sign up here
Tackle the entire state of California at this virtual race (which organizers hope will someday become a real, in-person race through the locations and environments it depicts). It’s a test of what your mind and body can accomplish over the next three months — running, biking and paddling over courses of 257 miles, 515 miles and even 1,030 miles.
$45 and up | Sign up here
In place of the Buffalo, N.Y., marathon this year, try this virtual race in which you run four different distances — a full marathon, half marathon, 10K and 5K — for a total of 48.6 miles between now and August 9. Completing each distance gets you another “piece of the puzzle,” which you can put together into a single medal when you’re done.
$60 | Sign up here
Great running reads
For Black Running Groups, Hosting a Community Is Key in Times of Stress. A really worthwhile profile of Black Men Run and Black Girls Run, running groups with chapters in cities and states across the country. Building and sustaining a sense of community has never been more important — and challenging, thanks to the restrictions imposed by COVID-19 — for their members than right now.
Racing to Stay Alive. A first-person account by Marielle Hall — a 28-year-old American distance runner who competed in the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro — of what it’s like to be black in a largely white sport. “I’m going running tomorrow. I’m not afraid to go running, but it feels inconceivable that I even have to think about it. It’s even more frightening that there will be people who don’t run tomorrow. Who will tell their kids not to run tomorrow, or whose families will sit at home wondering if their loved ones will return home.”
Global Running Day Is Going Virtual This Year. In place of in-person running events this year for Global Running Day, which takes place on the first Wednesday of June each year, the New York Road Runners is hosting a nationwide running group on Strava, in which you’re invited to run or walk at least 1 mile per day and upload your results. They’re also encouraging us all to #Run1Tag1, to encourage friends on social media to participate by tagging them after we complete our runs.