Never lose faith in the end of the story

As a prisoner of war in Vietnam, Admiral James Stockdale led his men through eight years of torture. Optimism didn’t work, he said. Here’s what did

James Stockdale was tortured for eight years as a POW in the Hanoi Hilton. He learned how to lead his men through the worst hell imaginable. The method he built to help them survive and thrive is a pretty good narrative for anyone seeking to build resilience in times of adversity.

First, Stockdale he never denied how terrible things were, not to himself and not to his men.  The optimists were the first to die, he said later. Instead, Stockdale and his men faced their brutal reality head-on.

But here’s the paradox: “I never lost faith in the end of the story.” He always believed that one day he would find meaning from the suffering, that he would emerge transformed.

The Stockdale Paradox is about being able to hold two opposing truths at the same time: the brutal reality of today and faith in the future. It’s a pretty good strategy for anyone looking for a narrative to lead with this year.  We think of it as the practice of ferocious optimism.

Ferocious optimism is not the Pinterest Pollyanna style of optimism, that says “It’s not so bad!” It’s the kind of optimism that says, “The country is struggling right now, but this is our chance to show what we’re made of.”  Ferocious optimism says “This might be the hardest year we’ve ever known. Watch us take it on.”

When most people talk about the Stockdale Paradox, they talk about these two opposing truths: the brutal reality of today, and faith in the future.  But there was one other thing Stockdale did, and given what we know about mindset science today, it was probably the most important thing.


The third pillar of the paradox: take action

During their eight years at the Hanoi Hilton, Stockdale and the men he led were virtually powerless. He was tortured over twenty times. They didn’t know when they would be released, or if they ever would. In these hopeless circumstances, literally, the chemicals in our brains begin to change. We start to release chemicals that make us feel depressed and lethargic. Our system shuts down. Being helpless is both contagious and fatal.

But here’s what Admiral Stockdale did. He created a “stepwise system” for his prisoners to manage the torture, where they could release information at certain intervals. He created an internal communications system of tapping so they could communicate with each other. He gave them something to do.  

And here’s what we know happened in their brains, as a result.  When we’re dealing with a traumatic situation, any action that we take changes the chemicals in our brain. We start releasing chemicals of hope and optimism. Instead of feeling depressed and lethargic, we start to feel empowered and optimistic.  It doesn’t matter what the action is. Tapping codes is what Stockdale did, but any other action could have worked as well.  The point is, by giving them something to do, he changed the narrative inside their brains. And with what we know about mindset science today, that was likely a definitive act for their survival.

So if you’re looking to build a better narrative, Admiral Stockdale is a good place to start. Practice ferocious optimism, where you recognize the brutal reality but promise to persevere. And take action — any action — to reset your brain, and reset your narrative.


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Note: The original story of the Stockdale Paradox and all Admiral Stockdale’s quotes can be found in Chapter Four of Good to Great, by James Collins. The “mindset science” comes from Kelly McGonigal’s book The Upside of Stress. 

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