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The Midweek Motivator -The Stockdale Paradox

Justifiably the late John McCain is the person most remembered for his ordeal as an abused guest of the “Hanoi Hilton”. Admiral Jim Stockdale however was the highest ranking officer in captivity; tortured 20 times over his eight-year imprisonment. Stockdale lived through his daily hell afforded no Geneva Convention rights, nor any assurance he’d ever be released. Under the dual role of prisoner and ranking American officer in that hell-hole, Stockdale did everything possible to create a survivable environment for his fellow prisoners, all the while fighting an internal war with his captors. So how tough is tough? 

At one point Stockdale beat himself with a stool and cut his face with a razor so as to avoid being put on television as an NVA exhibit of a “well treated prisoner.” He created a 3-step system by which prisoners could withstand torture and which after X number of minutes, allowed for a prisoner to offer just a little information…then after extended abuse, to tell a little more and so forth. The Admiral designed an elaborate internal communication system to stave off isolation among prisoners, using a five-by-five matrix with “tap codes” for alpha-characters. Upon his release Stockdale became the first three-star Navy Officer to wear both Aviator Wings and the Congressional Medal of Honor. 

In his early 2000’s book Good to Great, Jim Collins told of becoming depressed reading Stockdale’s memoirs about Hanoi prisoners’ life and death. “You can imagine my anticipation at the prospect of spending an afternoon with Stockdale. It seemed so bleak-the uncertainty of his fate, the brutality of his captors, and yet I knew the end of the story. He gets out, is reunited with his family, becomes a national hero, and spends his later years studying philosophy on the beautiful Stanford campus,” said Collins.

Under Stockdale’s nightmarish captivity with no guarantee of a survivable ending, how ever did he deal with it all? “I never lost faith in the end of the story. I never doubted I would get out or that I would prevail in the end and turn that experience into the defining event of my life. In retrospect, I would not trade that ordeal,” said the Admiral. 

Walking with a slight limp from repeated torture, Stockdale answered Collins’ question: “So who didn’t make it out?” In casual response the Admiral replied, “Oh that’s easy; the optimists.” Confused, Collins rejoined, “The optimists? I don’t understand.” 

Stockdale replied that the optimists were the ones who said, “Oh, we’ll be out by Christmas.” Christmas would come and go, then, “we’ll be out by Easter” only to repeat the cycle each year. Ultimately they died of a broken heart said the Admiral. 

Stockdale offered a crucial rejoinder: “This is a very important lesson-you must never lose faith that you will prevail in the end, and which you can never afford to lose! But you must also keep your discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be.”  

Considering Stockdale’s improbable reclamation, it might be good to carry the mental image of Stockdale admonishing the optimists: “We’re not getting out by Christmas; accept it.” Adversity can be overcome, though not always on our timetable.