The Stockdale Paradox came to light in the book Good to Great by Jim Collins. It was named after James Stockdale, former vice presidential candidate, naval officer and Vietnam prisoner of war.
Stockdale was tortured more than twenty times by his captors and never had reason to believe he would survive the prison camp. And yet he never lost faith during his ordeal:
“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.”
On the opposite side, Stockdale noted that many of his fellow prisoners did not make it. He attributes that to being overly optimisitc without being based in reality.
“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.”
Their self-delusion might have made it easier on them in the short-term, but when they were eventually forced to face reality, it had become too much and they couldn’t handle it.
Stockdale approached adversity with a very different mindset: he accepted the reality of his situation.
Stockdale knew he was in hell, but, rather than bury his head in the sand, he stepped up and did everything he could to lift the morale and prolong the lives of his fellow prisoners.
Optimism alone won't get you through:
Don't allow your hope and faith to blindside you on the realities that you need to deal with. Take concrete action and deal with your current situation, knowing and feeling good that you are making progress towards your desired outcomes. Faith/belief is but one ingredient to the road to success.
Pessimism alone won't move you forward:
On the flip side if you don't have any faith or belief, you are missing a key success factor. And worryiing will constantly bog you down and keep you inert.
Having faith and belief in your future while dealing with what you can control in your day-to-day is where the middle ground of success lies. Set your long-term goals/vision. Re-visit that purpose and track your progress, however small, toward that goal. Adjust your day-to-day to balance that long-term goal and your immediate reality. List out the things you can do to make your reality the best it can be and the best you in your current reality. Focus on those relentlessly while keeping an eye on your long-term purpose.