Human Kaizen

The Stockdale Paradox

The paradox to overcome hardships.

The Stockdale Paradox

Business author Jim Collins (Good to Great, Built to Last, and others) interviewed Admiral Jim Stockdale and coined the term “The Stockdale Paradox” after interviewing the highest-ranking American POW from Vietnam about which servicemen were able to make it through the torture of the prisoner of war camps. Per Stockdale it was not the optimists (who broke first from dashed hopes) nor the pessimists (that gave up all hope) but the ones who exhibited a balanced, Stoic approach of embracing the bitter truth but not succumbing to despair that could hold out a minute longer and then another and another until they eventually made it home.

To quote Stockdale himself

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.

I personally thought of this when I was sent for a biopsy and had to wait to find out if I had mouth cancer.

Maybe your company is facing bankruptcy. Maybe you are in the midst of a divorce and custody battle. A brutal injury, or something else as soul crushing.

Do not give in to despair, but don’t think it will miraculously all go away as a magic unicorn shows up with a winning lottery ticket or other deus ex machina device. A shredded knee will not heal itself overnight via magic potion but with time and immense rehab and sweat and sacrifice and yes pain, you can walk and compete again. Accept the gravity of the situation and the cost of recovery as well as the potential of not making it all the way back to your previous form, but do not give up on the dream nor give in to the darkness.

If you give up hope you are done.

If you naively believe it will be easy you are done.

The middle path of maintaining belief in success, balanced by an acceptance of the risk and effort required to survive, sustain, and ultimately triumph is embedded in kaizen from the earliest days of rebuilding bombed out factories and industries with insufficient resources to be great or even good in the short term. But having the vision and faith lets us walk difficult paths out of adversity to excellence.