In the book Good to Great by Jim Collins he shares the story of Admiral Jim Stockdale, who was the highest ranking US military officer in the “Hanoi Hilton” POW camp during the Vietman War. During his eight year imprisonment Stockdale was tortured regularly before his release in February 1973.
How did Stockdale manage to survive an experience where many others perished?
In his own words, he refused to become an optimist.
“The optimists 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.”
Put simply, every time they hoped for the best – kept positive – and then had their hopes dashed they lost faith in their survival. And this loss of faith impacted their ability to survive the harsh challenges of their reality.
Thus was born Stockdale’s Paradox, which states:
“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.”
When I read this story the other day it gave me pause and made me wonder – could positive thinking be killing our success?
The promise of positive thinking is two fold:
- That life is meant to be easier. Simpler. Happier. If only we keep thinking the ‘right’ thoughts and maintain optimistic no matter what then our time will come.
- That once we ‘get there’ everything will be great and we will finally have the happiness that we seek.
In my personal experience this hasn’t been true.
First, anything of value that I’ve accomplished in life has come at a cost. It’s been hard. It’s been challenging. I’ve wanted to throw in the towel more times than I can count – but I didn’t. I kept going and worked hard to accomplish my goals. I paid the price for my accomplishments and I’m proud for having done so as they have helped me become the woman I am today.
Second, I’ve reached many of the goals I’ve set for myself and guess what? The skies didn’t part. The angels didn’t sing. I wasn’t suddenly happier and more satisfied than I was before I reached the goal.
This has been a hard pill to swallow at times – what was I missing? Where was this promised land of positivity that meant I never had to worry again?
So I would do it over – go for the next goal, reach it, and still find myself missing that elusive promise of happy ever after.
I’ve been caught in this vicious cycle more times than I care to admit.
After reading about Stockdale it occurred to me:
What if the purpose of our journey is to discover how strong we are, and not to get to a place where our strength is no longer required?
What if, instead of positive thinking we rely on resiliency thinking?
Instead of believing that things will turn out great ‘if only we stay positive’ how about believing that we can handle anything that comes our way? That we are powerful, capable and ready to face life’s challenges regardless of how challenging they are. Regardless of how much they suck.
This resiliency thinking is what gave Admiral Stockdale the power to keep going during one of the most horrific experiences that a human can face.
My coach challenged me a couple of months ago to pay attention to what I was thinking throughout the day, and I was surprised (and slightly horrified) to realize what was running through my head.
Whenever I was faced with a challenge – be it in my business or on the home front as a single mom of two young girls – the phrase that would run through my mind was:
“I can’t handle this… it’s too much for me.”
Not only would I think those things but I would say them out loud as well, which only amplified the power they had over me! After months of thinking this way I found myself in a funk that was unlike my normal state of mind and which I was unable to shake.
I made a decision to replace those words with resiliency thinking and when I found myself going down that well-worn path I would instead say to myself:
“I’ve got this – I am a strong and capable woman and I can handle anything that comes my way.”
Within DAYS this simple change in my thinking started to shift how I was feeling.
No longer was I discouraged by the challenges of day-to-day life. Instead I felt empowered, knowing that I could handle whatever comes my way.
Those 3 little words – I’ve got this – have made all the difference for me.
Stockdale’s Paradox calls us forth to lead our lives in a very different way than what positive thinking has taught us.
We must retain faith that we will prevail in the end, regardless of the difficulties that come our way.
AND at the same time…
We must confront the most brutal facts of our current reality, whatever they might be.
It is a delicate balance at times and yet I can’t help but wonder if that sacred space between faith and reality is just what we’ve needed all along.