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Lessons from the Stockdale Paradox
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By Julie Swaner
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“Retain faith that you will prevail in the end, regardless of the difficulties, and at the same time confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be.” James Stockdale

Vice Admiral James Stockdale was the highest-ranking naval officer held as a prisoner of war in Vietnam. He spent seven years as a prisoner of war, most of them in the Hỏa Lò Prison (Hanoi Hilton), where he endured and survived unspeakable conditions. He was tortured more than 20 times. He also was subjected to “special” treatment as part of the “Alcatraz Gang” of 11 U.S. prisoners who were singled out for their particular resistance to their captors. They were kept in solitary confinement for two years in a facility near the Hỏa Lò Prison, the lights in their small cells were kept on 24 hours a day, and they were forced to sleep in shackles. During Stockdale’s career, he was awarded 26 personal combat decorations, including the Medal of Honor and four Silver Stars.
Years later, Jim Collins, who was a business professor at Stanford University, interviewed Stockdale for a book, Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap ... and Others Don't. Collins asked about Stockdale’s coping strategy in the Vietnamese POW camp. Stockdale's response led Collins to coin the term “the Stockdale Paradox,” which describes the mentality of one of the toughest survivors of horrific circumstances.
Stockdale, when asked how he coped during those dark, painful years, 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.” It is interesting to see that he chose to make captivity “the defining event” of his life. His disciplined mind was able to frame the experience to his advantage by employing two seemingly contradictory views: faith that he would prevail in the end, no matter the difficulty, and facing that he must confront the worst aspects of his current reality. 
When Collins asked who didn’t survive the grueling ordeal of years in prison in Vietnam, Stockdale responded: “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.”
Stockdale approached adversity with a very different mindset that never minimized his current situation and its brutality. 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. He created a tapping code so they could communicate with each other. He developed a milestone system that helped them deal with torture. And he sent intelligence information to his wife, hidden in the seemingly innocent letters he wrote.

Lesson 1: Blind optimism is not the path.
Absolute blind optimism was the undoing of some of those prisoners who didn't survive. Stockdale makes it clear that 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 those facts might be. As Stockdale makes clear, this is a mental perspective that can be powerfully effective. You must have faith that you will prevail, plus discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality.

Lesson 2: Take realistic stock of your situation.
For me, the Stockdale Paradox carries an important lesson in personal development and an important lesson for job seekers as they face a sometimes prolonged, painful, and arduous journey, looking for re-invention and work. I don’t want anyone to doubt that they can achieve personal goals, no matter how lofty they may be. However, it is critical to take honest stock of your current situation. Don’t lie to yourself for fear of short-term embarrassment or discomfort, because such deception will only come back to defeat you in the end.
Blind optimism on its own can be a dangerous thing. There isn't much difference between a pessimist who says, “It’s hopeless and I don’t stand chance, so why bother!” and an optimist who says, “Don’t bother doing anything; everything will just turn out fine.” The optimistic prisoners with Stockdale failed to confront the reality of their situation. Self-delusion may have helped in the short-term, but when some were forced to face the reality of their situation, it became too much, and they couldn't handle it.

Lesson 3: Seek social support.
What was the source of Stockdale’s faith that he would prevail? It apparently in large part was sustained through social support he experienced, even in solitary confinement. He was able to communicate through a tapping code to other American prisoners in the cells on either side of him. If they hadn’t had a tapping code to communicate, Stockdale and his fellow POWs might not have remained sane. 
We all need a tapping code of one sort or another as we deal with adversity. Everyone, and every job seeker, needs a set of individuals in their life with whom they can share feelings and solicit advice. A network of friends and relatives is critical. This is why Alumni Career Services’ Job Club continues to be supported by those in search of new beginnings.
To find out more about Job Club, click here.
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Need help? Contact Julie Swaner, director of alumni career programs at the University of Utah,
(801) 585-5036.

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