The Stockdale Paradox

I’m a podcast junkie.

I’m an odd kind of podcast junkie, though, because—aside from another favorite that only releases a couple of episodes a year—I only listen to one podcast. That would be the Tim Ferriss Show. I never skip an episode, but since I rarely get to listen more than a few minutes a day, right now I’m running about nine months behind real time. In the COVID era that’s a bit like watching the last Challenger launch in slow motion.

Anyway, this morning as I brushed my teeth I was listening to Tim’s second interview of Jim Collins, author of iconic business books Good to Great, Built to Last, How the Mighty Fall, and Great By Choice. Toward the end of the midwatch the Balinese sky had cracked wide open. A shockingly powerful downpour was hammering its way through my bathroom skylight and, however I contrived to dodge, spattering chilly rivulets down the back of my neck. So my focus was not perfect.

In principle I was headed for the gym as I do every Tuesday morning. In reality I was eyeballing the flood in my skylight, pondering the bike ride to the gym, and wondering whether I’d find any dry spots on arrival. And not feeling fully recovered from Monday. And reaching hard for other grievances.

The excuse engine was just revving into high gear when through the roar I heard a name I recognized: Vice Admiral James Stockdale. So I enabled noise reduction (which in AirPods Pro is a cast-iron miracle) and turned up the volume.

Admiral Stockdale was the senior officer held captive at the infamous Hỏa Lò Prison (a.k.a. the “Hanoi Hilton”) in North Vietnam. During over seven years of captivity, from late 1965 through early 1973, Stockdale and his fellow prisoners endured regular and brutal torture of body and spirit, under conditions that would make the Devil himself blush for shame.

Stockdale was awarded the Medal of Honor for the leadership he exhibited during this ordeal. For a sense of what that entailed, consider this excerpt from his award citation:

Recognized by his captors as the leader in the prisoners’ of war resistance to interrogation and in their refusal to participate in propaganda exploitation, Rear Adm. Stockdale was singled out for interrogation and attendant torture after he was detected in a covert communications attempt. Sensing the start of another purge, and aware that his earlier efforts at self-disfiguration to dissuade his captors from exploiting him for propaganda purposes had resulted in cruel and agonizing punishment, Rear Adm. Stockdale resolved to make himself a symbol of resistance regardless of personal sacrifice. He deliberately inflicted a near-mortal wound to his person in order to convince his captors of his willingness to give up his life rather than capitulate.

That’s officially off the chain.

Across the Pacific Ocean, Admiral Stockdale’s wife Sybil organized the National League of POW/MIA Families, which forced the President and Congress into public acknowledgement of POW mistreatment by the North Vietnamese enemy. In Love and War is a joint memoir of the Stockdale family experience, which should be available for Kindle but sadly is not.

Years later, Jim Collins met Admiral Stockdale while Collins was teaching at Stanford Business School and the Admiral was studying stoic philosophy at the nearby Hoover Institute. During that conversation, Collins asked Stockdale which prisoners were least likely to survive the Hanoi Hilton experience. His response made its way into Good to Great as the Stockdale Paradox. Here it is:

Oh, that’s easy: 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. 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.

This is the story Jim Collins told while I was talking myself into blowing off the gym because of some rain. Just for the record: I went.

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  1. Jason–great reminders, especially of the Stockdale’s amazing example and leadership. Thank you in turn!

    One admin note though–it is just Medal of Honor. Given the difference in selfless valor, duty, and sacrifice to others this medal is intended to recognize (versus how Congress works), there is nothing Congressional about about the character of this award’s whatsoever. That Congress can (but no longer typically does) play a role in nominating someone for the Medal of Honor, might make such an award so nominated a congressional Medal of Honor at best.

  2. That is an awesome example of pure focused will overcoming current obstacles. Nothing that any of us is dealing with right now is likely to measure up to the severity of the challenges that Admiral Stockdale was facing during that time.
    I’m going to use that example as my own private motivation any time that I feel like my little challenges are an excuse to feel sorry for myself.

    1. Amen brother! Mom used to tell me there were plenty of starving kids in Africa who would eat my beans for breakfast and twice on Sundays. I guess VADM Stockdale would have fashioned them into an incendiary device and used it to lead a prisoner revolt! 👊

  3. Great post, Jason! I remember reading In Love and War when we were plebes back in 1991 and it alternates chapters between what he was dealing with and the challenges on his wife‘a side (while also raising 4 boys).

    What was also remarkable Was how they devised ways to communicate…if she sent a photo of her holding a certain color roses, there was an encoded message. And, of course, the knocking system the POWs devised to connect with their fellow POWs and also keep them mentally active by teaching them various education areas. It makes you really consider what is worth complaining about after what they both endured.