Stockdale Paradox (Part 1)

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  • Newly freed prisoners of war Hanoi North Vietnam

This is part 22 in the series: RESILIENCE

Stockdale Paradox (Part 1)

Heroism is endurance for one moment more. – George F. Kennan

What’s the Stockdale Paradox? Have any of you read “Good to Great”? The author, Jim Collins, talks about the Stockdale Paradox. Admiral Stockdale was the longest held captive in the Hanoi Hilton during the Vietnam War. He was held, I think, for over seven years. Because he was the highest rank, he wasn’t going to take a release because he knew it would ruin the morale of those left behind. When he was interviewed, they asked him “Admiral Stockdale, how did you survive? Who survived and who didn’t in the Hanoi Hilton?” He said, “That’s easy. The optimists all died.” Now I don’t like how he defines optimists, but I do like his principle. So for now, although I define optimism differently, let’s work with his definition.

Stockdale defines optimists this way:
He said, “You know the guys who say, ‘they are going to get us out by Christmas. We’ll have a prisoner exchange. We’ll be out by Christmas’.”

What would happen? Christmas would come and go. No prisoner exchange. “New Year’s through New Year’s. It’s a fresh start. Our best people are going to negotiate with their best people. We’re going to do a prisoner exchange. We’ll be out by New Year’s”.
New Year’s comes and goes. They don’t get out. “Okay, Easter. They are going to get us out by Easter and we’ll be out of here by Easter. Prisoner exchange, we’ll be good.”

Easter comes and goes, nothing. “Okay, Fourth of July. Americans love Fourth of July. They will not keep us here one more day beyond the Fourth of July.”

Fourth of July comes and goes.

Stockdale says these men died of a broken heart. They died because, and here’s how he defined optimists, they had put their hope in someone else rescuing them.

What Stockdale said is the guys who survived said, “I don’t know how I’m going to make it tomorrow, but I know I figured out how to make it yesterday and I’ll apply what I learned yesterday to today. I know I can make it today. I’ll worry about tomorrow, tomorrow.”

Photo credit: U.S. Department of Defense

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By |August 9th, 2018|Categories: Resilience, Writing|