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Last week we discussed how, in these challenging times, we need to focus on what we can control rather than on what we can’t. In this blog, I would like to extend this concept today and share the Stockdale Paradox with you as a way in which you might take control in these times.

The Stockdale Paradox is a concept that was popularised in Jim Collins’ book, Good to Great. Admiral James Stockdale was the senior ranking officer in a prisoner of war camp during the Vietnamese War – and in those days there weren’t any worse places to find oneself.

In an interview with Jim Collins, Stockdale said the following:

“Who didn’t make it out?”

“Oh, that’s easy,” he said. “The optimists.”

“The optimists? I don’t understand,” I said, now completely confused, given what he’d said a hundred meters earlier.

“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 explained this idea as the following: “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.”

You will prevail in the end

Paradoxes consist of contradictions so this might be difficult for you to assimilate and apply at first:

Retain faith that you will prevail in the end: We tend to view crises as endgames but the truth is that they are invariably middle games and we have all in the past got through them. So take control of your response to your current difficulties by remembering, knowing and focusing on the fact (yes, fact) that you will prevail in the end.

Confront the most brutal facts: I think we tend to avoid, deny or resist the brutal facts in these moments, like the optimists Stockdale referred to. The brutal facts exist, no matter how we might try to colour them. Whilst we resist them in any way, we ultimately become victims (listen to your thoughts and language, if you find yourself here), and disempower ourselves from helping ourselves. However, when we confront them, we accept they are there and can do something about them. As M Scott Peck said in the first two paragraphs of The Road Less Travelled, certainly one of the best books I have ever read:

“Life is difficult.

“This is a great truth, one of the greatest truths. Yet once we truly see this truth, we transcend it. Once we truly know that life is difficult, once we truly understand and accept it, then life is no longer difficult because once it is accepted the fact that life is difficult, no longer matters.”

I hope that these words are not just profound or powerful for you but that they help you find a way to prevail in these times in a way, as Stockdale also said, that one day you look back at these times knowing that you wouldn’t change a thing.

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