In his best-selling book, Good to Great (2001), Jim Collins, noted that superior companies practice a powerful psychological duality. On the one hand they stoically accepted the brutal facts of reality while on the other hand they maintained an unwavering faith in the endgame, and a commitment to prevail as a great company despite the cruel facts. The path to greatness, then, started with the right mix of optimism and a willingness to confront the facts of reality. Such circumstances guard against the endless disappointments that optimism often creates. Confronting the adversity of their current reality enabled organizations to make realistic assessments of their existing state so as to allocate energies and reserves to better face each challenge as it came, thus positioning the enterprise for success.
Collins (2002) called this two-element state of affairs the Stockdale Paradox after Admiral James Stockdale, one of the most highly decorated officers in the history of the United States Navy, who survived eight years as a prisoner of war in Vietnam and was tortured over 20 times. In interviewing Stockdale for Good to Great Collins asked the Congressional Medal of Honor recipient how he dealt with the atrocity of his imprisonment: “I never lost faith in the end of the story,” Stockdale said; “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, 2002, p. 83).
Collins then asked Stockdale who were those who did not survive their captivity. “Oh, that’s easy,” he said, “the optimists. 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” (Collins, 2002, p. 84). At that point Stockdale turned to Collins and said, “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, 2000, p. 83). Collins (2000) indicated that he carries a mental image of Stockdale admonishing the optimists: “We’re not getting out by Christmas; deal with it” (p. 85)! Stockdale knew he was in hell, but, rather than bury his head in the sand, he stepped up and did everything he could to lift the morale and prolong the lives of his fellow prisoners.
The Stockdale Paradox, then, seems to involve both being positive (retaining faith that one will prevail) and at the same time, being realistic (confronting the most brutal facts of one’s current reality). Balancing the unwavering faith in the endgame in combination with a stoic acceptance of the brutal facts of current reality can serve to attenuate the dangers of excessive optimism and lead to survival. Survival was on the one hand about unswerving faith that one will ultimately triumph while on the other hand it was about banishing all false hopes; one can never let their belief and faith cloud their encounter with reality.
What the optimists failed to do was confront the reality of their situation. They preferred the ostrich approach, sticking their heads in the sand and hoping that the difficulties would just go away. That self-delusion might have made it easier on them in the short-term, but when they were eventually forced to face reality, it had become too much and they could not handle it.
The Stockdale paradox is similar to famous psychotherapist and holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl’s experience in Man’s Search for Meaning (1959). He observed that the death rate in the concentration camps increased close to Christmas because many people who believed they would be spending it with their family died of disappointment. He developed the concept of “... tragic optimism, that is, an optimism in the face of tragedy ...” (Frankl, 1959, p. 139). Different from positive illusions, tragic optimism refers to the capacity to hope in spite of and because of tragic experiences. Tragic optimism is predicated on the defiant human spirit, the belief that what cannot destroy a person makes them stronger. It has no use for wishful thinking or positive illusions and is based, in part, on acceptance that enables one to confront the reality of what cannot be changed.
The point both Collins and Frankl make is that it is maladaptive to have high optimism under certain circumstances. Future hall of fame professional football player, Bret Favre, indicated quite succinctly that “I think it’s OK to be confident. I don’t think it’s OK to be overconfident. Doubt to me at times is a good thing” (Campbell, 2010, p. C1). Blind optimists who think that everything will be fine if they just sit back and have positive thoughts and wait will be bitterly disappointed. At the same time, they should never lose hope that they will overcome adversity in the end, no matter what fate has presented. Being candid about oneself and one’s situation was also emphasized in Atlas Shrugged (Rand, 1957): “Nobody stays here by faking reality in any matter whatever” (p. 794).
Campbell, D. (2010, January 17). Romo, Favre dodge doubters. Herald Democrat, C1, C3. Collins, J. (2001). Good to great. New York: HarperCollins.
Frankl, V. E. (1959). Man’s search for meaning. Boston: Beacon Press.
Rand, A. (1957). Atlas Shrugged. New York: Penguine.