Jim Collins, a reputable author for The Economist, writes about the Stockdale Paradox in his book “Good to Great“. He considers this paradox as part of the several important characteristics which great companies possess. The Stockdale Paradox is actually a true story and it goes like this:
During the Vietnam War, there was an officer called Jim Stockdale. He was held prisoner in a concentration camp in Hanoi. Stockdale was unfortunate to be a prisoner for more than 8 years and during this period he was tortured for more than 20 times between 1965 and 1973.
Jim Stockdale managed to survive there until the last day of the war without knowing the day he was going to be set free and without knowing whether or not he will be free someday.
While he was imprisoned, one of his purposes was to help other prisoners to last longer in the concentration camps. He developed strategies for the times the prisoners were tortured. Knowing that one cannot last forever being tortured, his strategy was that a prisoner is allowed to share certain information after a specific number of minutes of torture.
Stockdale also created an internal communication system based on knocks, each one or several knocks signifying a letter. He did this to reduce the feeling of isolation the prisoners felt while they were imprisoned. The other prisoners were so grateful to Stockdale that once, during a period of silence and confinement, they encoded a message saying that: “We love you”.
Stockdale became the first officer who received the three stars decoration from the U.S. Navy and also the Congress Medal of Honor. He also received decorations and honors like: Air Medal, Purple Heart, Legion of Merit, Prisoner of War Medal, Bronze Star, Silver Star, Distinguished Flying Cross, and others.
Jim Stockdale was asked by Jim Collins (the author of Good to Great) what was about him that he thought or did so that he would be able to survive and also why most of the rest of the prisoners did not escape?
Stockdale said that the ones who did not escape were the optimists. He argued that these optimists would always hope to get out “by Christmas” and then “by Easter“.
Christmas came and nothing happened. Then Easter came and nothing happened. Then, Thanksgiving came and nothing happened.
These prisoners died because of their broken hearts.
Stockdale was different because he had always hoped to survive in the end and until survival was to come, he would constantly face and fight the brutal experiences of the every day reality. This is basically the Stockdale Paradox.
I have learned that the Stockdale Paradox is a story of perseverance and confidence, which are two of the most important ingredients of success. The majority of people do not posses them because they cannot discipline themselves to strive in the face of adversity.
People usually quit after their first or second experience of failure. Success comes to those who are able to last until the end.
Oh, and how sweet is the taste of success when you know how much you have endured and you are still on your feet!
Admiral Jim Stockdale should serve as a role model to me, to you and to everyone because his brutal experiences and tortures from the Vietnam War are less likely to occur to you or to me.
Even though you may face a lot of difficulties and negative experiences in your life, know that there is always someone somewhere else who has an even worse experience than you.
Be grateful for what you have, fight for what you want and don’t stop until you get it!