The Stockdale Paradox reveals why hope is the grimmest emotion

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Though hope is supposed to be this uplifting feeling, it's often experienced as an irritant or a buzzkill. And nihilism is kind of, well, charming and sexy. Like young Magneto in X-Men First Class. The Stockdale Paradox explains why that might be.

It turns out that there are really two kinds of hope. There's the candy-coated type that encourages people to escape into sugary fantasies rather than cope with a bad situation. Then there's the brand of hope that allows people to look at the full horror of their situation square in the face, because they have the grim belief that in the end they will prevail. Both kinds of hope are upsetting — one is airheaded escapism, while the other is too focused on gritty reality to be uplifting. It's the latter kind of hope that's captured by the Stockdale Paradox.

Niall Doherty sums up the Stockdale Paradox, which he learned about in the book Good to Great, the result of a long-term research project into companies that succeed by Jim Collins:

The Stockdale Paradox is named after admiral Jim Stockdale, who was a United States military officer held captive for eight years during the Vietnam War. Stockdale was tortured more than twenty times by his captors, and never had much reason to believe he would survive the prison camp and someday get to see his wife again. And yet, as Stockdale told Collins, he never lost faith during his ordeal: “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.”

Then comes the paradox: While Stockdale had remarkable faith in the unknowable, he noted that it was always the most optimistic of his prisonmates who failed to make it out of there alive. “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.”

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 for the difficulties to 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 couldn’t handle it.

Stockdale approached adversity with a very different mindset. He accepted the reality of his situation. He 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. 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.

Collins and his team observed a similar mindset in the good-to-great companies. They labeled it the Stockdale Paradox and described it like so:

You must retain faith that you will prevail in the end, regardless of the difficulties.

AND at the same time…

You must confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be.

For me, the Stockdale Paradox carries an important lesson in personal development, a lesson in faith and honesty: Never doubt that you can achieve your goals, no matter how lofty they may be and no matter how many critics and naysayers you may have. But at the same time, always 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.


Read more on Niall Doherty's blog (h/t Leigh Honeywell)