The Stockdale Paradox

A few weeks ago, I was reading this book called Good to Great by author Jim Collins. A great book by all definitions, it shares these amazing insights of what makes good companies great. The best part is that the insights shared in the book had been generated after a super detailed five years long study of a multitude of organizations.

One of the ideas put forth in the book is the Stockdale Paradox which is what we are going to discuss in this post. The author takes it to a business angle however it is equally applicable as a human study as well.

The Stockdale Paradox

In the year 1965, a US Admiral Jim Stockdale, during the Vietnam War, was imprisoned and held in captivity in Vietnam as a Prisoner of War (POW) with no set date of release, no prisoner rights and no certainty as to whether he would come out of the place alive or not. They were kept in solitary confinement in small cells where a light was on 24 hours a day, they had little or no external contact with anyone in the world outside and occasionally were inflicted torture, at times lasting for days.

Stockdale lived as a POW in Vietnam for a period of eight years from 1965 to 1973. However, unlike other prisoners, he did something remarkable which entitled him to be awarded with a Medal of Honor upon his release from the prison.

During this time, he did everything he could to increase the number of prisoners who would survive unbroken. He instituted rules that would help people to deal with torture. Since no one can endure torture indefinitely, he devised a step-wise system stating that after x minutes of torture you can give certain information, after y minutes another bit of information can be given and so on. He devised a tap based communication system using which the fellow solitary prisoners, who otherwise would have not been able to survive alone, used to communicate with each other by tapping their fingers. He also exchanged letters containing internal information with his wife who was outside, knowing well if he gets caught he’d be doomed.

Upon asking Jim Stockdale as to how he not only survived but also helped others to survive under such harsh conditions, his answer was simple:

“I never lost faith. 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.”

Hope is definitely a good thing to have in situations like these. But then, what’s so paradoxical about it?

Here’s what.

When asked who didn’t make it out he simply replied, “The optimists”.

“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.”

The optimists believed that one good day will come when they will eventually get out of this place. And hence they preferred the ostrich approach, to put the head in the sand and believe all is fine. Stockdale on the other hand knew that while he was in hell, that while he has to believe and have the faith that he will come out by Christmas, he also confronted the reality and did everything he could to help himself and his mates in making the situation better with each passing day.

And thus the paradox.

You must retain faith that you will prevail in the end.


You must also confront the most brutal facts of your current reality.

The Lesson

The lesson that the Stockdale Paradox teaches you and I is that howsoever hard and harsh the situation of life may be (as it usually is), a combination of Hope and Action is necessary to come out of it:

  1. Hope: we need to have utmost faith that we will prevail in the end, and at the same time,
  2. Action: we need to come face to face with the brutal facts of our present situation and act in the right direction.

An accident may happen, a major failure may pursue, a job may be lost, a year or more may be wasted, hard work and effort may go in vain and all may seem lost. At all such moments, it is of utmost importance to have a belief that all will be well in the end as that belief will retain light in life, and at the same time to not hide behind the pain and agony of the failure, instead to confront it and work best in the given constraints as that will ensure the hope is not merely a fancy.

Think-it-over: Are you at present facing a situation which is difficult? Or have you faced one in the past? If it’s getting hard to get out of the situation, is it because you are not absolutely and resolutely hopeful that all will be well in the end? Or is it because you are not facing the reality and working towards making it better?

If either of the legs is missing, it would be hard to walk on the volcanic road of failure which when walked upon correctly always leads home.