The Stockdale Paradox was originally brought to life in the Jim Collins Good To Great book on what it takes to make average companies extraordinary.
Interestingly the Stockdale Paradox isn’t widely known unless you are a fan of Jim Collins, which is somewhat of a surprise as the principle is pretty straightforward and applies to all aspects of our lives.
The easiest example I can think of is the following:
“You go into an important meeting to land that next big project. All goes well, you are feeling pumped when you come out, life is good, you know the deal is going to come through. But then, that reality check that the universe likes to play with you. You have a parking ticket for $200. At this moment your brain triggers your emotions as this is a negative, a pain and that’s where we will bask for the next hour. But the stockdale paradox says that we need to have context, let me explain.” (This is a very trivial example, but us humans currently crave triviality!)
The Stockdale Paradox is one such concept that, at first glance, takes some mental wrangling to fully grasp.
Jim Collins found a perfect example of this paradoxical concept in James Stockdale, a soldier, one of the highest-ranking naval officers at the time, who, during the Vietnam War, was held captive as a prisoner of war for over seven years.
During this period, Stockdale was tortured with no reason to believe he’d make it out alive let alone get home. Within the grim awareness of his reality, he found a way to stay alive by embracing both the harsh reality of his situation with a balance of healthy optimism.
Stockdale explained this concept as the following:
“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.”
In the simplest explanation of this paradox, it’s the idea of hoping for the best, but acknowledging and preparing for the worst.
The ability to acknowledge your situation (awareness) and balance optimism (growth mindset) with realism come from an understanding of the Stockdale Paradox. This contradictory way of thinking was the strength that led James through those trying years. Such paradoxical thinking, whether you consciously know it or not has been one of the defining philosophies for great leaders making it through hardship and reaching their goals.
Whether it’s weathering through torturous imprisonment in a POW camp or going through your own trials and tribulations, the Stockdale Paradox has merit as a way of thinking and acting for all creating an aware and conscious life.
Because, reality check, not everything is going to be rosy, all day every day. But, if you accept the principles of stoicism from leading thinkers like Ryan Holiday, there needs to be a healthy detachment from our emotions to create acceptance or our daily reality.
It also flies in the face of unbridled optimists and those positivity peddlers whose advice pervades nearly every self-help book or guru spiel out there. Those Instagram ‘celebrities’ that are in no uncertain terms deeply misaligned to reality and try to convince you of the same.
Stockdale Paradox and to your daily life
We want to be successful, happy, and fulfiled. Reaching this state of fulfilment isn’t going to come just by a positive mental attitude. That’s all well and good and it makes us feel nice. It’s why so many people like to listen to the endless gurus and motivational speakers promising us the world if we only just learned to change our mindset or buy the course. But what they leave out is the need for self-awareness and action towards something that moves you in the first place. Because fulfilment comes from meaning.
Confronting the situation is instrumental for success. There’s a bit of positive attitude required, but it needs to be counterbalanced with the thought that you can fail and actually be better for it. There are countless examples of situations that seem hopeless that turn out more abundant that one could ever imagine as illustrated in The Pursuit of Happyness. Your wildest dreams just might come true. . . that’s the paradox.
It’s not about choosing which side to take, but instead learning to embrace both feelings in opposition to one another and realise they’re necessary and interconnected.
How to apply the Stockdale Paradox in your business
When it comes to business leadership and creating your vision, this dual state helps to guard against the inevitable disappointments that will hit you in the business world. Optimism drives innovation, but that needs to be put in check to ensure that you’re playing in reality and not heading towards something that can’t happen.
It’s a tool to keep yourself grounded, but also entertain the idea of being incredibly successful.
The Stockdale Paradox can help any leader to improve their situational leadership and plan accordingly to tackle the challenges that will arise. It builds resilience through both the idea that you can be positive and believe you will overcome all difficulties while at the same time you are confronting the unpleasant facts of your current situation.
The awareness of your reality is what causes the fear and shuts down the momentum required to reach the positive outcome you want.
So when you next get a ticket, or indeed something doesn’t go your way. Give it context, look to the future and move on. Remember all success is on the other side of pain.
There are no shortcuts.