“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.”
—Vice Admiral James Stockdale (1923-2005)
James Stockdale was a naval aviator shot down in Vietnam and held captive at the “Hanoi Hilton” for seven years. Repeatedly beaten and tortured, at the same time he was a leader to other prisoners in helping them cope with their captivity, treatment and uncertainty.
The above quote, which is known as “The Stockdale Paradox,” was originally referenced in James C. Collins’ book Good to Great. It is a lesson that has been shared with me by more than a few role models in my time. When Collins asked Stockdale about those who were least likely to make it, his answer was (ironically) “Oh, that’s easy, 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.”
So many of us these days who are rebuilding are also struggling with mere survival. The loss of jobs, the reduction of business revenue and holding on through seemingly endless sales cycles can be enough for any one of us to give up. Indeed, as a close friend and financial advisor once told me, the biggest challenge to beginning any business or career endeavor is most often “Surviving the drip.” It’s having just what you need to get by for TODAY, so you can make it to the next.
Stockdale’s profound observation, in my opinion, is far less a paradox and much more about balance. I know one person in my life who always said she was not an optimist, but a realist. Being an optimist is simply setting yourself up for failure and disappointment. Unfortunately for her, being a realist was to surrender to defeat, self pity and pessimism…to give up. She had no faith.
The Stockdale Paradox recognizes the need for faith in an ultimate outcome, while accepting what IS–our current reality. Faith in an ultimate outcome does not pretend to predict the future. It is about accepting the NOW as it is, and realizing deep down that the one thing that does NOT change in God’s universe is the law of impermanence. Indeed, everything changes sooner or later.
If you find yourself distracted by worries projected into tomorrow, next week, next month or even next year, bring yourself back to center, to today. In sales, there is the common rule of “under-promise and over-deliver.” Yet how many of us do just the opposite with ourselves?
As I have experienced profound physical, personal, professional and spiritual change in my own life these past few years, I’ve realized that much of my stress came from obsessing over what happened in the past, or what might happen in the future. What is, simply is, and what will be, will be. So I write this from personal experience (and pain as well): Take your mind off tomorrow and focus on today, and only today. Keep in faith that your persistence is creating new results and new realities. At the same time accept what IS, and work with it rather than against it. Your current reality is not the end of your story; rather it is the beginning of your new one.
Do this, and you won’t just survive the drip; you will learn to appreciate it.