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January 18, 2005

The Stockdale Paradox

Joe Kraus' recent post reminded me of this parable (from 'Good to Great') that I had quite forgotten. I'm just going to quote Joe, because it is an excellent post on the entrepreneurial mindset:

The Stockdale Paradox is named after Admiral Jim Stockdale who was the highest ranking US military officer imprisoned in Vietnam. He was held in the “Hanoi Hilton” and repeatedly tortured over 8 years. Collins describes going to lunch with Stockdale (can you imagine?) and trying to understand how he survived 8 years as a POW while so many died after just months in captivity.
Here’s how Stockdale put it. “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.”
“Who didn’t make it out”?
“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. Then they died of a broken heart.”
So, on the one hand it was about unswerving faith that one will ultimately prevail while on the other hand it’s about banishing all false hopes? As usual, the guy who lived it says it best.
“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.”
Holding those two seemingly contradictory notions in his head simultaneously was the key to Stockdale surviving, even thriving, in his experience. And, I believe, it is a perfect summary of the mindset you’ve got to have in starting a company. You have to believe that your vision will come to pass. You’ve got to do everything you can to make it happen. But, you can never let your belief and faith cloud your confrontation with reality.

Posted by Narasimha Chari at 10:16 PM in Books, ventures | Permalink


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There were those that left that war behind them when they came home. There were those that brought it home with them. This latter group won't be counted amoung the dead of that war. But, to a man, they are no longer living, or sane. That is the forgotten legacy of that war.

Another legacy is the MIA issue. I had a history professor tell me that he wrote his dead up MIA, because the paperwork was easier. You had to prove that the soldier died. Nevermind that he was standng there one minute, and the next he was scattered remains too small to put in a body bag. I lost my respect for him that day. I used to live on one of those housing bases where all our dads were over there. The neighbor kids' father was MIA. They had to live there seven years until he could be declared legally dead.

Sanity only goes so far.

Posted by: David Locke | Feb 2, 2005 3:07:16 AM

The Stockdale paradox, to me, is absolutely inspiring for people who are turning their lives or their companies around.

I wrote about it in my own blog too:


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Holding those two seemingly contradictory notions in his head simultaneously was the key to Stockdale surviving,

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In his landmark book Good to Great, Jim Collins described this as the “Stockdale Paradox.” It’s named after Admiral James Stockdale (that’s him in the picture, complete with his Medal of Honor), who survived more than seven years as a POW during the Vietnam War and went on to be Ross Perot’s running mate in the 1992 U.S. presidential election.

You can read the full account of the Stockdale Paradox on Collins’s Web site. But here’s the key quote, straight from Stockdale:

“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.”

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