How The ‘Stockdale Paradox’ Can Help You Embrace Uncertainty

How The ‘Stockdale Paradox’ Can Help You Embrace Uncertainty
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Believing in a better future—while still acknowledging the darkness of our present reality—seems almost impossible right now. Doing so may make all the difference.

As James Stockdale, a Vietnam veteran who spent seven years as a prisoner of war, said of surviving his harrowing confinement, “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.”

Stockdale, who spent seven years being brutally tortured in Vietnam with no idea if or when he would go home again, attributes his survival to his ability to blend hard pragmatism with an unwavering hope for the future. It’s what is now called the Stockdale Paradox.

“Seeing the path ahead is incredibly powerful,” says Tom Gilovich, a professor of psychology at Cornell University. Even if the odds aren’t great, even if the situation seems dire, envisioning a way forward—even just an imagined one—can be the key to picking yourself up and moving ahead each day, even in the midst of incredible difficulties.

The weeks and months ahead look to be some of the most difficult we’ve ever faced, both as individuals and as a society. No matter how many times we wash our hands, how careful we are to disinfect all surfaces or how strict we are about staying at home, we could still get sick and die. Our loved ones could get sick and die.

On top of that, our economy is crashing. Millions around the world are out of a job, while millions more put their lives on the line every day to provide us with essentials like food and medical care.

So how do we hold on to hope for the future, while also accepting the harsh reality of the present situation? How do we keep moving forward, even when the odds look grim and the situation seems dire?

“We know what we need to do, what our job is,” Gilovich says. We may not have complete control over who gets sick and who doesn’t, but we do have control over our own actions. Many of us do have the privilege to stay home, to practice physical distancing and to do our part to stop the spread. We do have control over measures such as washing our hands and disinfecting surfaces. We can do our part to flatten the curve and slow the spread and help protect the healthcare workers who are putting their lives on the line to care for their patients.

No one is going to escape this pandemic unscathed, though the severity of the effects will vary for from person to person. We also don’t know how this pandemic will end, nor when it will end. That is the harsh reality of now: There are so many things about our current situation that we just don’t know. We don’t know if our loved ones will make it through. We don’t know what the new normal is going to look like. We just don’t know.

As Stockdale said in an interview, the ones who held on to a false sense of optimism were the ones that didn’t make it through, for “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.”

If we believe this will all be over in a few weeks—or that when it does end, the world will return to what it was before—that is the equivalent of Stockdale’s fellow prisoners believing they would be out by Christmas or Easter… That is the way to a broken heart.

If we push beyond blind optimism, we can forge ahead into new territory, carrying with us both an understanding of the world as it is right now and an unwavering hope for the future. And that is how we will make it through.

“There is every reason to believe scientific ingenuity will come up with an answer,” Gilovich says.

We may not be able to predict when that answer will come or what it will look like, but we can certainly believe there will be an answer one day. Holding to that belief—that faith—is how we will prevail.

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