If you read this blog often, you will know that I am a big fan of Jim Collin’s teaching in his New York Times Bestseller Good to Great. In fact, I’ve already written a couple of posts about what I’ve learned from the book so far (Discover Your Passion and The Hedgehog Concept). Another concept that I mull over often in the book is the concept Collins labeled “The Stockdale Paradox”.
The Stockdale Paradox is named after Adm. Jim Stockdale. He was the highest-ranking US military officer in the “Hanoi Hilton” POW camp during the height of the Vietnam War. To quote the book, “Tortured over 20 times during his eight-year imprisonment, Stockdale lived out the war without any prisoner’s rights, no set release date, and no certainty as to whether he could even survive to see his family again.” Yet during his capture, he never doubted that he would get out. In fact, he never lost faith that he would prevail in the end. The Paradox refers to how one could retain faith that he/she will prevail, regardless of difficulties, while at the same time confront the most brutal facts of his/her reality, whatever they might be.
On paper, it sounds easy to have faith. A natural response to having faith is to stay optimistic, right? But as the book pointed out, the optimists in the POW camp were the ones who didn’t make it out. Why? The optimists were the ones who would believe that they would be liberated by Christmas, then Easter, then Thanksgiving, then another Christmas. When their target dates came and went and they were not set free, they eventually died of a broken heart.
So if optimism isn’t the answer, what is? The answer, in my opinion, lies in the person’s view of his/her surrounding. When put in any difficult situation, people usually have two kinds of responses, depending on their mindset. One kind of response is to fix one’s attention on the outcome, while the other response pays more attention to the process. So to use Adm. Stockdale’s situation as an example, people who fixed on the outcome would plan their lives around that. They would spend their energy on looking forward to the release date, but each day that they remained captive, they would lose just a little bit of hope and gain a little bit more despair. It’s essentially what the optimists among Stockdale’s group did, and they all died in defeat.
On the other hand, if instead of paying all their attention on the outcome they attended to what was happening to them, then they would do everything they could to survive the day, including coming up with all the reasons and tactics to exist despite all the suffering, tortures and punishment. By focusing their attention on beating the enemy one day at a time, they would accomplished two things: they would have confronted the most brutal facts of reality, and they would have built the faith necessarily to prevail at the end. In essence, they would fulfill the Stockdale Paradox.
What kind of response one makes towards any situation depends on the kind of mindset he/she has. If you are interested in learning more about the successful mindset, Carol Dweck has an excellent book with the said title, Mindset – The New Psychology of Success. But if you are interested in the immediately actionable recommendation, I found the following to be helpful (from the blog Dumb Little Man):
Programming creates beliefs.
Beliefs create attitudes.
Attitudes create feelings.
Feelings determine actions.
Actions create results.
Programming refers to creating and reinforcing what you believe. If your belief is not yet one that fulfills the Stockdale Paradox, then create appreciation in your mind for processes over results in your everyday life, starting now! Reprogram yourself to believe that process counts more than the results. If you do it often enough, it will soon change your attitude and your entire mindset.