Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Optimism vs Reality: The Stockdale Paradox

A very excellent excerpt from Stephen Shields blog during my research on Learned Optimism:

This concept is named after Admiral Jim Stockdale, the celebrated former Vietnam POW. When Jim Collins asked Stockdale who died in POW camp, Stockdale replied (as Collins reports),

"Oh, that’s easy,'" he said. "The optimists.”

“The optimists? I don’t understand,” I said, now completely confused, given what he’d said a hundred meters earlier.

“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.”

Another long pause, and more walking. Then he turned to me and said, “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.” (from Good to Great, pp 83ff).

Jim Collins sets forth the principle that I believe fills out a more balanced view of optimism:

Retain faith that you will prevail in the end, regardless of the difficulties

AND at the same time

Confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be.

What is variable, then, is not the optimism, but merely whether it's short-term or long-term.

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