How Optimism in the Face of Adversity Can Change Everything

The Stockdale Paradox and Seeing True

In my profession as a leadership and strategy consultant, there is an organization development framework I have come to deeply appreciate. Good to Great, by Jim Collins, is a way of thinking about what distinguishes great organizations from their peers. One of the ideas in his framework has proven to be remarkably helpful for professional, spiritual and personal development.

The Stockdale Paradox is named for Vice Admiral James Stockdale who was the highest-ranking naval officer held in captivity in the Vietnam War. In short, he recognizes one particular attitude to be of tremendous value: the ability to face the brutal facts of our current circumstances, while maintaining the optimism that we shall prevail in spite of them.

Facing reality is a courageous step. Everything about our human ego wishes to deny difficult truths, to avoid them even if we must practice self-delusion, to find any available out even if we must use absurd rationalizations or justifications.

Until we face hard facts, there is no need for a solution or resolution. Without the urge of reality we cannot and do not look for a better way. As a friend once said with stark honesty, “I rarely see the light, but I often feel the heat.”

The beauty of Stockdale’s perspective is that it acknowledges the power and necessity of cause for optimism. Call this hope. We must believe there is the possibility for overcoming; otherwise we will be crushed by reality.

If you have ever been in a tight spot, physically, emotionally or psychologically, you have experience with this. In darkness, any bit of light brings forth resolve. In tragedy, any glimmer of strength lifts spirits. In seeming hopelessness, any inkling of opportunity brings new energy no matter how weary we may be.

Seeing True

The brutal facts have extraordinary value. When coupled with the power of optimism and reason to believe we can prevail, action becomes possible. Action provides the means to success and results no matter our circumstances.

Seeing True in Action

Let’s borrow from the powerful recovery practice of inventory: 

1. Pick some circumstance in your life that are currently problematic…preferably highly problematic. (The more the difficulties, the greater the urge to resolution.)

2. Write down all the things you can think of about the situation that you do not want to see, do not want to admit, or do not want to feel. (Don't worry, you can burn the paper when you’re done.) Honor yourself by telling yourself the truth.

3. Then shift focus to any conceivable reason why surmounting the challenge would be worthwhile. Rate them according to their value to you.

4. Sit quietly with the information. Breathe. Just breathe.

5. Now, write down one action you can take that moves you forward. Add a date by which you’ll complete the action. Put it on your calendar or create some kind of electronic reminder.

6. Resolve that you will prevail.

Updated November, 2018