The Stockdale Paradox


The Stockdale Paradox is a term coined by famous author Jim Collins in the book “Good to Great”. He named this idea based on the story of Vice Admiral James Stockdale.

James Stockdale was a Squadron Commander for the United States during the Vietnam War. On September 9 1965, Stockdale was forced to eject over hostile territory and was taken as a Prisoner of War (POW) by the Vietnamese.

Stockdale was a Prisoner of War for the next seven years.

During this time, what kept him alive is his undying determination to get through the ordeal and get home. According to him: “I never lost faith in the end of the story, 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”.

Turning the ordeal into a defining event of his life. Remember that.

But this is not the reason why the term “Stockdale Paradox” was coined. When asked who were the ones who did not survive, he replied: 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.

On the surface, it seems like his undying determination runs contrary to his view of the optimists who hoped for an early release. Looking deeper, you can see how much wisdom Stockdale had. Stockdale never lost sight of his ultimate goal, his grand vision. But he never was dazzled by false hopes, and he was willing to face the brutal reality of the situation he was in.

This duality of perspective is the Stockdale Paradox.

We must learn from Admiral Stockdale by knowing and embracing the reality we are in, by accepting that things will not magically go our way; but never losing sight of the grand vision that will bring us liberation from our constraints.

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” – Vice Admiral James Stockdale (1923-2005)

-A Garlic Man