The Stockdale paradox

James Stockdale was a US Navy Admiral who survived captivity after being taken prisoner during the Vietnam War and enduring over 7 years of tortures and extremely poor conditions. After being liberated he wrote numerous books about his experience and what helped him, balancing the reality he was in with his final aim which was survival. As the economies start reopening again, how his learning can help us navigate through today’s uncertainties?   

Stockdale endured difficulties during the 7 and half years of captivity and saw many optimists perish during the same period of time. In his view his experience was an important lesson on how optimisms should not be confused with realism. Many other prisoners confused the harsh reality of the poor conditions they were in, with the optimistic view of being liberated any time soon. They kept thinking that they would be out by Christmas and when Christmas came, they thought they would be out by Easter, only to be disappointed again. When the same repeated itself a number of times, they lost faith in being rescued and gave up altogether. Stockdale instead never lost contact with reality but kept an uncompromising faith that there would be a positive outcome waiting for him at the end. He kept going despite the terrible conditions of the prison’s camp, thinking the final outcome would eventually prevail.

Stockdale paradox

How many challenges do we see today to which we have no answer yet? Will the vaccine be the answer to Covid and will it end the lockdown everywhere? When can we start travelling and to which Countries?

As entrepreneurs too, we often live in a difficult reality and optimism alone will not be the answer. We need to face our own difficulties and understand the repercussions on our business of what is today a changing industry landscape. A longer than expected sale, the customer telling us “business is very flat at the moment, let’s review it in a week time” may lead even the most motivated salesperson to give up after a number of rejections. Optimists will say “I don’t mind about that client, let’s focus on the next deal…” until another potential customer will reject our offer again.

Although a great asset, particularly at the beginning of the sales process, hoping for the best with an optimistic view of the outcome could lead a salesman not to complete the whole sales process and go down after a few hurdles.

Entrepreneurs would often benefit from a good dose of realism combined with optimism and have a clear plan on how to implement that final objective.

During one of his interviews, Gary Vaynerchuk once said that being an entrepreneur for him was great, but he knew that there were lots of problems and difficulties waiting for him in the office. However, he was happy to face them in view of his reward at the end. That’s an important lesson from Gary as we are all waiting to see the light at the end of this tunnel when social distancing will be a memory of the past!

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