James Stockdale, who served as a high-ranking officer during the Vietnam War, was held as a prisoner of war at the infamous Hanoi Hilton for over seven years. While in captivity, he was repeatedly tortured and suffered continually with little reason to believe he’d ever make it out alive. What eventually saved his life was his ability to acknowledge the reality of his situation and balance it with a steadfast belief that he would do whatever it took to ultimately survive and return home. As the commanding officer he modeled that philosophy for others who were held captive. Years later, Stockdale was asked in an interview with Jim Collins, author of Good to Great, about those who struggled the most under the duress and anguish of imprisonment. He quickly replied “Oh, it’s easy. I can tell you who didn’t make it out. It was the optimists.”
When Collins seemed incredulous about Stockdale’s answer, he elaborated: “They were the ones who always said, ‘We’re going to be out by Christmas.’ Christmas would come and it would go. And there would be another Christmas. And they died of a broken heart.” On the one hand, Stockdale stoically accepted the brutal facts of reality, but on the other hand, he maintained an unwavering faith in the final outcome and a commitment to prevail. Collins went on to label this psychological duality as the “Stockdale Paradox,” and it has never been more relevant than it is in today’s society. Like James Stockdale, you must hold on to the belief that you can prevail in the face of any circumstance and remain resilient, without allowing unrealistic optimism to obscure the facts, regardless of how daunting the situation may seem.
Living a successful life won’t be attained simply by elevating your mindset and visualizing that everything will turn out in a positive light. That may make you feel good, but confronting the entire reality of every situation is essential for achieving long-term, sustainable success. Your optimism must be counterbalanced with the realization that you could fail miserably—but don't lose faith—your wildly imagined dreams might just as well come true. That’s the paradox. It's not about choosing which view to take, but instead leaning in to embrace both in opposition to one another, and realizing that in some transcendent way, they are both interconnected.
Such paradoxical thinking has been one of the guiding principles for many who have achieved outstanding success throughout history— and it can also be for you. Commit to do whatever it takes to firmly hold in one hand, a relentless belief that you will succeed in the end—along with the courage to overcome any obstacle you encounter in the other hand—and you will be prepared to conquer anything.