Sunday, January 25, 2009

The Stockdale Paradox

The Stockdale Paradox - from TVWOP

I don't have the answers: like you I'm in the middle of my own story and can't skip to the last page to see how it all comes out.

The questions are fascinating.

Vice Admiral James Bond Stockdale died in 2005. He served on the Ticonderoga in the Gulf of Tonkin, and was shot down over Viet Nam in 1965. He was the highest-ranking naval officer to be held as a POW, and was Ross Perot's VP candidate in 1992. Interesting guy. Afraid they'd videotape him and show the world a well-treated and valued prisoner, he beat himself with a stool. He cut himself with a razor; he did what had to be done. He limped for the rest of his life.

In the camp, he invented new ways for his men to resist torture, sent coded messages to his wife, invented new ways to break through isolation and communicate with each other. New ways to stay alive. The men cleaning the courtyard, during a period of enforced silence, swept the ground in the syncopated rhythm he'd taught them, silently and defiantly spelling out to him inside the walls: "We love you. We love you. We love you."

James C. Collins is a business management writer who's written several management books, including Built To Last and Good To Great. Prepping to interview him, Collins read the Vice Admiral's own record of his time at the Hanoi Hilton:

As I moved through the book, I found myself getting depressed. It just seemed so bleak -- the uncertainty of his fate, the brutality of his captors, and so forth. And then, it dawned on me: "Here I am sitting in my warm and comfortable office, looking out over the beautiful Stanford campus on a beautiful Saturday afternoon. I'm getting depressed reading this, and I know the end of the story! I know that he gets out, reunites with his family, becomes a national hero, and gets to spend the later years of his life studying philosophy on this same beautiful campus. If it feels depressing for me, how on earth did he deal with it when he was actually there and did not know the end of the story?"

"I never lost faith in the end of the story," was Stockdale's answer. "I never doubted not only that I would get out, but also that I would prevail in the end and turn the experience into the defining event of my life, which, in retrospect, I would not trade."

Collins asked him, "Who didn't make it out?" and Stockdale replied immediately: "Oh, that's easy. The optimists... 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."

"This is a very important lesson. 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."

That's the Stockdale Paradox: How do you hope just enough to stay alive, without wanting so much that your heart breaks when you hit the rough patches? When you realize rough patches are all we ever have? How can you keep yourself from taking your heart and putting it somewhere safe, in the gauzy soft tissue-ad future, wishing and hoping and praying that the pain will end, and life will go back to being mere survival and contentment? How to take the localized hope that you'll realize your goal, and pull it so wide across the rest of time that you can hope beyond the dashing of your hope? How do you do that without ripping it?

How can you possibly have enough strength to hold onto your faith in the face of evidence that your faith is meaningless and always was? How do you hate just enough to stay alive, but love just enough to be human in the end? How to walk the edge of the razor without becoming one; to burn off your loss without burning off your soul in the process? When they take away even the idea of completion, commencement, the lie of meaning, the black stone and the white; when you're looking at the negative space where the future used to be, how do you remember how to stay alive? What do you do when you can't get out?

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