Admiral James Stockdale was held as a prisoner of war for eight years during the Vietnam War and was tortured in excess of 20 times by his captors. He was able to withstand all of this without losing his mind by employing two seemingly contradictory views: faith that he would prevail in the end no matter the difficulty and facing that he must confront the worst aspects of his current reality.
Photo by the US Navy.
Deliberate living blog Disrupting the Rabblement examines how by meshing those two views as his mental focus, Stockdale never wavered from the belief that he would be rescued. Many others did not fare so well.
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.
Hopefully no one reading this post will ever have to go through a hostage situation similar to Admiral Stockdale. Even so, we can put the Stockdale Paradox to work in changing our lives for the better. If you're morbidly obese you need to know that you can eventually lose the weight, but you have to admit to yourself that right now you're fat, not fluffy, and need to get started working on your weight loss goals by facing the brutal truth of your situation. The paradox can similarly be applied to people who struggle with debt, an unhappy marriage, and many other unhappy situations.