I was discussing with a friend what I should write for this post. He brought up an interesting idea. My friend discussed the common glass half full vs. glass half empty scenario. He said there could be a third group: the people who see half a glass of water. Between the optimists and the pessimists there are people who simply see things for what they are. While this analogy might not work perfectly, it reminded me of one of the most interesting concepts I’ve learned of in recent memory.
THE STOCKDALE PARADOX
The concept is the Stockdale paradox. This paradox gets its name from Admiral James Bond(yes that’s his middle name, and yes it’s freakin BA) Stockdale. Stockdale was a prisoner of war during the Vietnam War at the infamous Hanoi Hilton POW camp. Stockdale lived in the camp for 8 years, surviving repeated torture.
An interview found in Jim Collins’s book Good to Great, between Collins and Stockdale, reveals the concept of the Stockdale Paradox. Collins asked Stockdale which prisoners didn’t make it out, and Stockdale said this:
“Oh, that’s easy…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…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.”
(The rest of this excerpt from Collins’s book can be found at: https://www.jimcollins.com/concepts/Stockdale-Concept.html)
Imagine facing down the reality of years in prison, torture, potentially seeing friends killed, and still being able to have the faith that you will overcome your obstacles. It really does seem like a paradoxical thing.
But if you think about it, there really is no other way to succeed. Being a pessimist is a surefire way to destroy yourself even before your trials have a chance to beat you. Being an optimist may help for a time, but without an awareness and acceptance of reality, optimism will ultimately put you in the same exact spot as the pessimists. Being hopeful, while still confronting reality, is what will get you through life’s most difficult challenges.
Optimists are great at running short sprints when their goals are in sight, pessimists barely even start their race, but those who apply the Stockdale Paradox will have the legs to run the entire marathon.
BECOMING A HOPEFUL REALIST
These hopeful realists, as I’ve decided to call them, have the capacity to weather difficulty. Instead of having blind faith that things will work out, they make the most of what they have, and trust that things will eventually get better.
So how can we do this in day-to-day life? We may not have to face torture (I sure hope not), but we all have difficult, heart-wrenching, seemingly unending, and flat-out miserable things in life. I think the key is to do everything we can to take meaningful action toward purpose, be aligned with the reality of our current situation, and trust that things can work out eventually, without relying too heavily on specific outcomes and rigid timelines. That trusting may take the form of religious faith, spirituality, or simply knowing that life happens in waves. There will always be peaks and troughs. The common adage, “Hope for the best, plan for the worst,” seems to fit well here.
What it all comes down to is this: we cannot control the world around us, but we can manage ourselves. We can shift our attitude, outlook, and effort. We can decide how to respond when life throws its punches. So, with whatever struggle you’re dealing with right now–big or small–take the time to evaluate yourself. Are you being too pessimistic? Are you putting faith in things that are unlikely or at the very least not guaranteed? Adjust your attitude, accept reality, then go forward and do the best you can with what you have.