How the Stockdale paradox can help us get through this

'Never confuse faith that you can prevail with the need to confront the brutal facts, whatever they are'

“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!

Your friend,

— Terrell

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