September 9, 1965, was a life-changing day for James Stockdale. It was the day that his Douglas A-4 Skyhawk was shot out of the sky, forcing him to eject to save his own life. The North Vietnamese captured the American admiral that day. But little did they know then that they would take in a very, very troublesome prisoner.
They detained Stockdale at the Hỏa Lò Prison, the infamous “Hanoi Hilton.” He soon established communications among the American prisoners of war, and a code of rules to organize the prisoners and boost their morale.
When the abuse of American POWs reached a climax in 1969, Stockdale was selected by his captors as a trophy for their propaganda. Knowing that he wouldn’t be paraded if he was disfigured, he cut his own scalp with a razor and then beat his own face with a wooden stool, foiling his captors’ plans.
After Stockdale found out that several POWs had been tortured to death, he slit his own wrists to show that he would rather die than capitulate to his captors. From that night on, the practice of torturing American POWs stopped in the facility.
Stockdale finally returned home to the United States in 1973 after seven-and-a-half years in prison. In 1976, he was awarded the Medal of Honor for his heroism.
Once, Stockdale had invited Jim Collins, a management scholar, out to lunch. Collins asked Stockdale about how he persevered while in Vietnam.
“I never lost faith in the end of the story,” replied Stockdale. “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 then asked about the kinds of people who didn’t make it out of the Hanoi Hilton.
“The optimists,” came the response. And then Stockdale explained.
“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.”
After a moment of silence, Stockdale finished his thought.
“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.”
Collins would later codify this into his coaching regime as the “Stockdale paradox” to help business leaders who were facing challenges—which is sound reasoning. After all, if this thinking can help a soldier survive POW camp, there are very few things it can’t help with.
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History is full of adversity. But given human nature, it’s also full of people who have overcome adversity, each in their own way.
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