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Stockdale Paradox- a winning mindset

Updated: Dec 2, 2023

Admiral Jim Stockdale was the highest ranking official to be shot down in Vietnam. He spent 8 years in the Hanoi Hilton. After his release, he was interviewed by Jim Collins (author of Good to Great), and when he was asked who were the ones who didn't make it, he responded, "Oh, that's easy. The optimists". That answer seems very counter-intuitive. We would tend to think the optimists would be the ones who did make it. However, Admiral Stockdale goes on to explain that the optimists were the ones who thought they'd surely make it home in time for Christmas, then for the next Easter, then for Thanksgiving, then for Christmas again. They were so optimistic about ending their horrors and being freed, that they continually set themselves up for disappointment, and they "died of a broken heart", said Stockdale. In contrast, Stockdale shared what kept him going and ultimately to make it back home, after repeated torture, an uncertain future, the brutality of his captors, etc. He says, “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.” (copied from Good to Great). What an incredible mindset in the midst of such atrocity. Let's look closer at what he said.

1- He never lost faith in the end of the story- I don't know what kind of faith he was referring to, a confidence that good would ultimately prevail over evil, or a spiritual faith that believes in a good outcome promised in all things. Either way, he let that faith continue to trump every experience and to speak to him more loudly than what he was experiencing at any given moment, even in the face of the torture that left him with a limp for the rest of his life. He said of his faith, “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.” No matter the situation, we all must decide whether or not to believe that we will prevail in the end. Everything hinges on this mindset.

2- He realized that the difficulty he was currently experiencing would become the defining event of his life, which in retrospect, he would not trade. This is a mindset that challenges me, and I think challenges all of us. It is all too easy to wish for things to be better. But as Jim Rohn famously said, "Don't wish it were easier, wish you were better"! I believe the addictions that we so easily fall prey to are at their core a desire for escape from something unpleasant to something that promises (often falsely) to be more pleasant. The thing about addictions is that they never solve the original issue from which someone seeks to escape, while adding another layer of issues that the addictions themselves create. To be able to face the difficulties in front of us with the mindset that we will prevail and the situation will ultimately be our badge of honor, will add new meaning to what we are going through (which often seems so pointless) and will steady our steps to keep on stepping, knowing the end will be a good one. So what is it that you are going through? What is your team going through? The thing that seems so difficult today with no good result in sight, may in fact be your finest hour, as you respond with faith, courage, and a bullet-proof mindset. For training or coaching for yourself or your team on resilience, mindset, courage or anything else that is needed to help steady your steps in the difficult world we are living in, reach out to me at and we will together determine how to face the difficulties with an overcoming perspective.

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