Mental Health Theory

The Stockdale Paradox

The Stockdale Paradox is about the balance of optimism and realism and is based on a conversation between Jim Collins, an author, and James Stockdale, the former vice presidential candidate, naval officer and Vietnam prisoner of war.

The Stockdale Paradox - illustration of a head with a smiling sunshine inside.

Jim Collins is the author of a famous book called ‘Good to Great’. In the book, Collins explores what it is that means that some companies make the leap to greatness whilst other companies just stay static in a ‘good’ state.

In a conversation with the former prisoner of war, James talked about how optimism was not enough to help you survive such a horrific experience; he says that it was the optimists who did not survive:

“Who didn’t make it out?” “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 metres 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.”

James Stockdale/Jim Collins, Good to Great

Instead of just optimism, the Stockdale Paradox states that you must have realism as well as optimism and it is this potential tension between the two attitudes that give us the paradox.

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

By introducing ‘brutal’ realism as a secondary attitude, it helps us to set realistic expectations and to understand potential outcome routes even if not positive. It’s then the optimistic attitude that helps us to understand all potential options but to believe that the best route will prevail.