The Stockdale Paradox

I’ve been reading Good to Great by Jim Collins and an illustrative story really stood out to me. The story describes and explains what the author describes as The Stockdale Paradox, named after Admiral Jim Stockdale, who was the highest ranking US military officer in the “Hanoi Hilton” prisoner-of-war camp during the Vietnam War. He was tortured numerous times during his eight-year imprisonment from 1965 to 1973.

The Stockdale Paradox is to retain absolute faith that you can and will prevail in the end, regardless of the difficulties, AND at the same time confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be.

“I never lost faith in the end of the story,” he said, when I asked
him. “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.”

I didn’t say anything for many minutes, and we continued the slow walk
toward the club, Stockdale limping and arc-swinging his stiff leg that had never
fully recovered from repeated torture. Finally, after about a hundred
meters of silence, I asked, “Who didn’t make it out?”

“Oh, that’s easy,” he said. “The optimists.”

“The optimists? I don’t understand,” I said, now completely confused,
given what he’d said a hundred meters earlier.

“The optimists. Oh, 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.”

Another long pause, and more walking. Then he turned to me and said,
“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.”

To this day, I carry a mental image of Stockdale admonishing the optimists:
“We’re not getting out by Christmas; deal with it!”

Four out of five church plants don’t survive. Countless others never get off of the ground. Are you able to look at this reality and still maintain the unwavering faith that you will succeed, or are you merely an optimist?

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