Saturday, December 12, 2015

Weekend thought: The Stockdale Paradox

I've heard this many times, but it is still interesting/irritating/interesting to me. Via a blog post on the "Six Characteristics of the Highly Effective Staff Officer" (written by Andrew “Evan” McCoy, Assistant Operations Officer for 4th Squadron, 2nd Cavalry Regiment), the Stockdale Paradox: 
...Medal of Honor recipient ADM James Stockdale was held prisoner for more than seven years during the Vietnam War. He was tortured multiple times, kept in isolation and had no knowledge when his captivity would end or if he would be killed by his captors. Throughout this period of captivity he was well aware of the grim outlook that his situation held, however throughout these dark times he held on to the indisputable fact that everything would work out in the end.  
While Stockdale had remarkable faith in the unknowable, he noted that it was always the most optimistic of his prisonmates who failed to make it out of there alive. “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.” The Stockdale Paradox[iv] can be summarized as so: 
You must retain faith that you will prevail in the end, regardless of the difficulties. 
AND at the same time… 
You must confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be.
The Stockdale Paradox is found in the business book "Good to Great", which I have read a portion of, with considerable skepticism. But I do think there is something to the Stockdale Paradox. 

14 comments:

  1. Vaguely reminiscent of hope for the best, prepare for the worst.

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  2. Pretty solid Grad School advice...

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    1. Pretty solid Life advice (having been to grad school and now at Dupont)

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  3. POW ≠ hero - D. Trump

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  4. Yeah, the Stockdale Paradox is what (some of) my former advisers tell me, but just not the search committees at their own universities. I feel like an alien who has landed from another planet, but for whom the domestic welcoming committee is nevertheless composed of tribesmen who have little inkling of life outside of the Ivory Tower.

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  5. This could also be advice from Joel Osteen. Can I get an AMEN?

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  6. Just optimistic enough to keep going, and not so optimistic as to be crushed by repeated failure.

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  7. CJ: Thanks for that...and I was trying to characterize my present situation in a similar way (Stockdale paradox). But, that does not tell you if there is going to be light at the end of tunnel!!! BTW, is it the same Stockdale who ran as VP for Ross Perot (1992). If he is the same individual he is the one who thundered "Who Am I and what am doing here?" to a question from a journalist during one of those debates!

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    1. Yep, the same one!

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    2. That was a prepared statement, delivered in response to the moderator's request for an opening statement. It looked like a really bad attempt at a rhetorical device. Kind of surprising, really: one would have expected a former president of the Naval War College to have a pretty polished presentation.

      At any rate, the sequence lives on over at YouTube.

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  8. I don't see the paradox. Seems a pretty clear pattern. You need to be optimistic but not have goals to survive. Opimistic with no goals - .survive (e.g. Stockdale). Optimistic with goals - not so much.

    The lesson here for me is that when things are completely out of your control, stay optimistic in the future but don't set yourself goals.

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  9. Anonymous writes in:

    after reading McCoy's blog post, I liked almost all of it a lot, but thought his section on buy-in was misguided, perhaps dangerously so. On the subject of disagreement, he goes so far as to say that staff officers need to not only drink the Kool-Aid, but to serve it. Isn't this how the military got into the Bay of Pigs? I know I've seen groupthink lead to stupid decisions in science.

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  10. Your skepticism is well-placed, CJ. See "The Halo Effect" by Phil Rozenweig.

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