The Stockdale Paradox: The right way to leverage hope

by | May 25, 2015

James Stockdale was a highly-decorated naval officer who endured more than seven years of imprisonment and torture at the infamous Hanoi Hilton prison during the Vietnam war.

During that hellish period, he was routinely beaten and tortured. He was locked in leg irons in a bath stall. His shoulders were wrenched from their sockets, his leg was shattered, his back was broken.

When his captors told him he would be paraded in public, he slit his own scalp with a razor so they couldn’t use him as propaganda. His captors then covered his head with a hat, and he promptly beat himself with a stool until his face was swollen beyond recognition.

He was kept in solitary confinement, his cell measuring three feet by nine feet. A light bulb was kept on around the clock.

But through all this pain and agony, he refused to capitulate.

In his business book, Good to Great, Jim Collins writes about a conversation he had with Stockdale regarding his coping strategy during imprisonment. Stockdale said:

“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.”

Collins asked him who didn’t make it out of Vietnam, and he replied:

“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.”

Stockdale then added:

“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.”

Collins describes this as the Stockdale Paradox.

We don’t give up because we encounter challenges. We give up when we lose hope that we can overcome them. Hope, more than perseverance, is the linchpin of success.

Hope is the fuel of endurance. We can have the most willpower and be the strongest, most courageous people on the planet, but without hope, we have no reason to exercise the willpower to persevere.

When hope fails, all else fails with it.

(For tools to boost your hope in your future, click here to download my free toolkit now.)

Hope is what pulled Frederick Douglass from the dark pit of slavery. He wrote in his autobiography,

“From my earliest recollection, I date the entertainment of a deep conviction that slavery would not always be able to hold me within its foul embrace; and in the darkest hours of my career in slavery, this living word of faith and spirit of hope departed not from me, but remained like ministering angels to cheer me through the gloom.”

Hope is a canteen that gets you through your deserts. But misplaced hope is a deceiving mirage that will crush your spirit.

Above anything else, hold on tightly to hope. Never let it go. But make sure that your hope is placed in the right things.

Don’t hold onto the hope that your venture will succeed just as you envision it — because it might end up as a dismal failure.

Hold onto the hope that whatever happens, you will learn, you will make progress, some ultimate good will come from your efforts.

As Martin Luther King, Jr. said,

“We must accept finite disappointment, but never lose infinite hope.”

Your current business might fail. If you fail and lose your hope, you’ll never start another one.

But if you fail and hold onto your hope, you’ll start the next one, eager to apply the lessons you learned from your failure.

You may lose a loved one. If this causes you to lose your hope, you’ll become bitter. If you hold onto hope, you’ll find peace and learn how to comfort others.

As Robert H. Schuller said,

“Let your hopes, not your hurts, shape your future.”

Hope cannot make harsh realities disappear. But it can make them endurable.

(For tools to boost your hope in your future, click here to download my free toolkit now.)

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