In 1965, Commander James Stockdale was flying over enemy territory when he was forced to eject from his plane. Stockdale was captured, tortured and held as a prisoner of war for seven years before his escape. How he dealt with his situation draws an inescapable conclusion regarding what it takes to survive in life when the odds are against us.
After gaining his freedom, he was interviewed for a book in 2001. At some point during the discussion, his interviewer paused and changed the topic of conversation.
“How,” he wanted to know, “did you survive all of those years of capture and torture?”
Commander Stockdale simply said, “I never doubted not only that I would get out, but also that I would prevail in the end.”
The interviewer was impressed, and thanked him for his candor. As he started to being the interview again, he hesitated for a moment.
“What about your prison mates? Those that didn’t end up coping well and had a hard time returning back to their normal lives. Why didn’t they ‘survive’”?
Commander Stockdale never even missed a beat, and replied, “Oh, that’s easy; they were the optimists.”
The interviewer was exasperated. “You just said that you knew that you would get out. That sounds like optimism to me.”
Commander Stockdale shook his head. “No, you don’t understand. 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.”
“Those of us that survived, and survived well, knew that we would get out sometime.”
He continued to elaborate. “We also had little to no control over our lives in those seven years. But we were going to be damned if we let them control the grains of sand that we placed perfectly aligned around the walls of our cell.”
“We also were required to clean the barracks, but we weren’t allowed to talk with each other. So we choreographed dance moves with each other using the brooms.”
“And finally, since we were in solitary confinement, we used Morse Code to talk with each other. This was difficult, since the enemy knew Morse Code. So we spent six months practicing a new form of Morse Code in order to communicate with each other.”
“The ones who didn’t survive were incredulous and couldn’t believe what they were seeing. They said, ‘You’re playing around with the sand in your cell like it makes some sort of difference? Dancing with brooms? Practicing a new type of Morse Code in order to chit-chat with each other about your day? Are you nuts? This is a terrible situation. It’s a disaster. We need to get out.’”
And in the end, they didn’t survive.
Stockdale approached adversity with a very different mindset: he accepted the reality of his situation.
First, he used optimism in the right way: He believed that, “You must retain faith that you will prevail in the end, regardless of the difficulties.”
AND at the same time… he was brutally honest about his situation: “You must confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be.”
And sometimes those brutal facts involve the element of control, whether real, or perceived.
Combined together, these describe the Stockdale Paradox.
We all need to learn from this. The question before us, then, is: Will we learn from this? How does our response to a situation make things survivable and management, versus catastrophizing and being helpless?