Faith or Blind Optimism?

Thursday, 18 Jun 2020


The Stockdale Paradox is a concept that was popularized by Jim Collins in his book Good to Great. It was named after James Stockdale, former vice-presidential candidate, naval officer and Vietnam prisoner of war. The paradox’s main idea is that you need to balance realism with optimism. When Stockdale - the highest-ranking military office - was held captive during the Vietnam War, he was tortured more than 20 times over 8 years and suffered greatly. At one point, he beat himself with a stool and cut himself with a razor, deliberately disfiguring himself, so that he could not be put on videotape as an example of a “well-treated prisoner.” He worked tirelessly to assist other prisoners.

The following exchange is well documented following an interview with Stockdale years after his release and is accessible on any search. (I read this in Brene Brown’s book: Dare to Lead). Stockdale survived but the obvious question remains - how on earth did he survive his ordeal when he was there and did not know the end of the story?”

I never lost faith in the end of the story,” he said, when asked. “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.”

He was then asked, “Who didn’t make it out?” “Oh, that’s easy,” he said. “The optimists.”

“The optimists? I don’t understand,” responded the interviewer completely confused given what he’d said 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. 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.”

It is worth reiterating the last part of the sentence: "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." Perhaps this could be rewritten along the lines of hoping for the best but preparing for the worst.

I found this story to be very interesting as it reverberates with definitions around what a pessimist, an optimist and realist is. A glass contains 50 per cent water. A pessimist is a person who considers the glass half full; an optimist considers the glass half empty. A realist drinks the water.

You’ll note above that Stockdale is not a pessimist either, rather, he is somewhat of a realist; a pragmatist. “Perhaps not surprisingly, low levels of pessimism, rather than high levels of optimism, have actually been associated with better health. In other words, pessimism may be a risk factor for heart disease and other physical and mental health conditions, but optimism won’t necessarily prevent you from becoming ill. Rather than constantly aiming for a bright smile and sunny disposition, or giving in to an overall negative outlook, the goal should be moderate optimism with a daily dose of pessimism”. (Psychology Today)

To the eternal optimists, it is a good thing to be hopeful and wishing for the best and for the pessimists we can only hope they are not so ‘down’ as to pull everyone with them over the cliff. A dose of realistic pragmatism would help many of our kids.

We often implore people and kids to be optimistic when perhaps we could pivot to a better conversation about being realistic particularly when we talk to kids about their aspirations and their place in the world. We can be encouraging and hopeful, but we need to be realistic. The idea that ‘you can do or be anything you want in life’ is unrealistic. Perhaps a more realistic perspective may be that with hard work and a proportional sense of ambition, plus a realistic acknowledgement of one’s own strengths and weaknesses, your likelihood of success is optimised.

It was Thomas Jefferson who proposed that it was each citizen’s right to the pursuit of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. This dream was not about guaranteed outcomes, of course, but the pursuit of opportunities.

In her article, psychologist Janet Boseovsky (Children are natural optimists – which comes with psychological pros and cons), she says that a child’s natural positivity bias is present as early as 3 years of age, peaks in middle childhood, and weakens only in late childhood. They start school as little optimists but throughout their journey experience a greater number of negative relational experiences which makes them more jaundiced about life. Constructive feedback can lead to realistic perspectives and self-improvement whereas destructive feedback can lead a child to develop a more pessimistic self-appraisal.

Boseovsky advises, ‘As for teaching children to accept negative feedback about themselves, a moderate approach is probably best. If children are reared in a loving environment where they’re taught over time to accept that they aren’t always the best, or that they sometimes need to do better, they may be better equipped to handle the inevitable hard knocks of life. We all become jaded adults soon enough’.

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