Admiral Jim Stockdale of the United States Navy was a POW during the height of the Vietnam War. He is reported to have been tortured more than 20 times during his imprisonment. He had no rights, no release date, and no guarantee that he would ever see his wife and family again. During a bleak time of uncertainty and misery, Stockdale was a beacon of hope for his fellow POWs, helping them discover ways to cope with torture and maintain morale.
After eight long years Admiral Stockdale made it out alive, many of his comrades were not as fortunate. Years following his release he did an interview with Jim Collins. He explained that while optimism helped, what he referred to as faith in the end of the story, was critical to his survival, it was not the only contributing factor. In the book “Good to Great” he explains, “This is a very important lesson. You must never confuse faith that you will prevail in the end—which you can never afford to lose—with the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be.”
Understanding the Stockdale Paradox
Today this idea is referred to as the Stockdale Paradox. It is an unwavering belief that you can and will prevail regardless of difficulties and simultaneously having a willingness to accept your current reality regardless of how harsh it is. In reflecting back on his imprisonment, Stockdale noted that he understood he would someday look back on the turmoil he was experiencing as a defining moment in his life that he would never trade.
I share this story to highlight the idea that while everyone loves and gravitates towards positivity, sometimes things are just not positive but that doesn’t mean there is no hope. As human beings, we are not made to be positive 100% of the time. In fact, as I recently learned, four of our six primal emotions (though arguably now, three out of four) are negative to help us identify and avert threats and ultimately keep us alive.
So, the next time you have a bad day or run into an obstacle in your life, stay honest with yourself. Accept your reality so that you can move past it. Equally, have faith that there are better days ahead, even if you can’t see them. As we all travel the path of self-discovery, there will always be ups, downs, trials, and tribulations. But as demonstrated by the honorable Admiral Stockdale, these moments can be catalysts to some of the most developmental and influential moments of our lives.