As the highest-ranking officer in the “Hanoi Hilton” prisoner-of-war camp during the height of the Vietnam war, Jim Stockdale knew he wasn’t getting out anytime soon.
Instead, he was tortured regularly and had no prisoner’s rights, release date, or, it would seem, reason to believe he would live long enough to see his family or country again.
Despite all this, Stockdale refused to give in. He did everything he could to help his fellow prisoners survive the ordeal and to stymie his captors’ attempts at using him and his comrades for propaganda, even going as far is disfiguring himself so he couldn’t be held up as an example of a “well-treated prisoner.”
He encoded intelligence messages into his letters to his wife, risking brutal torture and death, he devised guidelines for dealing with torture that increased his fellow soldiers’ odds of survival as well as a morse-code-like system of communication using taps to ease isolation anxiety among the men, and more.
In the end, Jim Stockdale spent eight years in captivity and after his release following the American withdrawal from the war, he was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor.
It’s hard to imagine, even for a moment, what Stockdale’s experience must have been like. How in the hell did he not collapse into a completely catatonic state? How did he find the strength to stand up every day and continue working against the enemy? What was the secret of his unbreakable will?
Well, as quoted in the fantastic book Good to Great, here’s the answer in his own words:
“I never lost faith in the end of the story. 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.
“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.”
Jim Collins, the author of the book, called this mentality the Stockdale Paradox–the belief that you will prevail in the end harmoniously co-existing with the willingness to face the darkest facets of your circumstances.
When asked who didn’t make it, Stockdale was quick to reply:
“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.”
The message is clear: hope is vital but unbridled optimism, bordering on delusion, can be dangerous.
Winston Churchill knew this as well, which is why he created the Statistical Office early in the war and assigned it a very specific job: feed him unfiltered facts and data about the conflict, no matter how disturbing. “I… had no need for cheering dreams,” he wrote, as the Nazi blitzkrieg was stampeding through Europe. “Facts are better than dreams.”
Churchill relied heavily on this department throughout the entire war and couldn’t have made the decisions he made without the willingness to face things as they were, not as he wished they were.
It’s doubtful we’ll have to face personal hardships like Stockale’s or carry burdens as heavy as Churchill’s, but we can count on this: we’re going to have to deal with shitty situations that we feel are unfair. We’re going to suffer setbacks and disappointments and they may be completely without reason or even someone to blame.
If we’re trying to go anywhere or do anything meaningful in our lives, there will be obstacles, and how we deal with these inevitable difficulties will define who we really are as people.
Will we be like the unfortunate optimists that succumbed in Hanoi, unwilling to see the forest for the trees, or like the stoical Stockdale, never giving up but also never giving in to fantasies of imminent bliss?
Will we sit on our hands with our heads in the sand or will we never stop working toward our goals while also maintaining full awareness of what really lies ahead?