“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.” ~ James Stockdale
It was late fall in 2009, and I had gone out to the Buck Creek field for a walk. Everything in my life was a swirly, unrecognizable mess. I walked, round and round the track—talking aloud to myself—trying to come up with ideas for how to best proceed.
As I passed the metal bleachers, it hit me. A passage I had read in a book many years prior that had resonated so powerfully with me, it made my hair stand on end. I knew the book held important clues. I ran home.
I burst through the front door, scanned the bookshelf for a bright red spine, and located Jim Collins’ Good to Great. I searched the index for the Stockdale Paradox and found the passage.
The Stockdale Paradox
Collins told the story of Admiral James Stockdale who was a POW during the Vietnam War. Collins notes, “It just seemed so bleak—the uncertainty of his fate, the brutality of his captors, and so forth…how on earth did he deal with it…?”
When Collins asked that very question directly to Stockdale, he replied, “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 followed with another question: “Who didn’t make it out?”
“The optimists. Oh, 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.”
This was the Stockdale Paradox.
Facing the Reality of a Crisis
I closed the book with a slam, grabbed a legal pad and pen, and mapped out each and every brutal fact of my current situation. I got every terrifying detail down in black ink. When I stopped, took a breath, and read over my notes, I had 3 pages of blurts. Intertwined. Seemingly impossible to overcome. No great choices.
But it was now out of my head and all stepped out in front of me. It was a good start.
Oddly, once I saw the scope of my challenges in their entirety, all in one place, I got a whiff of possibility for the first time in months. It had taken courage to face reality, extricate myself from the quicksand of denial, and let the veil drop. Now, standing naked and exposed, I could move into problem-solving mode.
Raw, frightened, but clear minded and determined.
I tore out the yellow sheets and set them aside. I began grouping the blurts into categories onto a fresh sheet of paper. I had categories for finances, business, legal, research, housing, and the one that took my breath away, children.
I kept going.
Once I had the blurts in categories, I came back with a different colored ink and began brainstorming next steps. I didn’t edit or hold back if I didn’t know how to do something. I just wrote down ideas for desired outcomes. I figured I could figure out the details later.
When I couldn’t think of a next step for some of the categories, I simply wrote down, “Ask X for advice.” X was a trusted friend, an attorney, a family member, a colleague, or a confidant. I encircled myself with wagons of talented humans and was no longer shy about asking for help.
When I stopped looking down and began looking up, I noticed ideas and solutions where before I had seen none. Resources, paths to pursue, and odd synchronicities began to appear. I leaned into an energetic stance of surrender combined with a fierce pursuit of championing my circumstances.
I made a vow to craft my desired future into becoming reality and to never forget the lessons of abject fear, worry, and profound uncertainty.
And like Stockdale, once on the other side of the darkness, I, too, came to say that I would not trade that time nor its lessons for anything.
We are facing global challenges now that are at times going to feel as if they are insurmountable. We will feel just like I did during those years of the Great Recession: frightened, unsure, worried, confused, overwhelmed, angry, sad, anxious. We will be groping around in the dark for solutions, reaching blindly for the door handle of the emergency exits.
Our minds will threaten to run off without us, devolving into doom loops of despair.
Let’s take a pause and remember Admiral Stockdale and the Stockdale Paradox. Let’s get our worries out of our heads and onto paper. Let’s shed denial and embrace clear vision of next steps.
Let’s seek advice, consolation, support, and community. Let’s offer our gifts to the collective. Let’s call forth our creativity, our calm, and our generous hearts.
Let’s confront the brutal facts and never let go of the knowing that we will prevail.