The Stockdale Paradox: It’s the ability to balance optimism with realism to get through tough times when the future is uncertain.

It’s a concept that is very relevant now and builds on the work of Viktor Frankl, the World War II Holocaust survivor who spoke of the power of choosing your response to life’s challenges.

James Stockdale was the highest-ranking US military officer held captive in the infamous ‘Hanoi Hilton’ POW camp during the Vietnam War.

He was imprisoned for almost eight years and repeatedly tortured.

In 2001, Jim Collins wrote about Stockdale in his classic business book, From Good to Great.

Collins asked Stockdale how he dealt with the trauma and unknown of captivity. This is what he said:

“I never lost faith in the end of the story… I never doubted not only that I would get out, but also that I would prevail.”

Collins then asked Stockdale who didn’t make it out alive. His answer surprised the author:

“Oh, that’s easy… The optimists.”

Stockdale explained that those who only focussed on being optimistic would hang their hopes on being out of prison by Christmas. But then Christmas would come and go, so they’d pin their hopes on a new date, perhaps Easter. Then that date would come and go too and the optimists would die of a broken heart.

Frankl described similar.

“This is a very important lesson,” Stockdale said. “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 went on to call this approach of being resilient through life’s challenges ‘The Stockdale Paradox’.

It’s about hoping for the best and being positive, while being prepared for and facing up to the worst.

We need to embrace both healthy optimism AND realism to get through this tough time and come out the other side stronger than ever.

Admiral James Stockdale being reunited with his family after almost eight years imprisonment.


Leah Mether helps people get out of their own way with the development of soft skills (which are really hard). She is a speaker, trainer, facilitator and mentor.