Achievement, Adversity, and the Stockdale Paradox



The Allure of Positive Thinking

Conventional wisdom in the space of personal development and achievement, has long contended that a positive mindset is a precondition for success.

From Napoleon Hill’s ‘Think and Grow Rich’ to the many works of psychologist, Martin Seligman, the ‘founder of positive psychology’ and the recent and compelling ‘The Happiness Advantage’ by former Harvard Professor, Shawn Achor, the case for maintaining a positive mindset when facing a challenge is well evidenced and argued. Additionally, for many, being positive in the face of adversity and challenge makes intuitive sense.

The Problem with Positive Thinking

More recently, however, a number of experts including Gabriele Oettingen, Professor of Psychology at New York University and author of ‘Rethinking Positive Thinking’ and Todd B. Kashdan and Robert Biswas-Diener, authors of ‘The Upside of Your Dark Side’, have cautioned against the dangers of positive thinking.

Oettingen argues that a focus on positive thinking can result in the feeling of being successful getting in the way of the reality of achieving success. Kashdan and Biswas-Diner contend that so-called negative emotions such as anger and guilt can be powerful motivators and as such useful tools for achievement. 

The Stockdale Paradox

While there are many proven techniques and strategies for utilizing the power of both ‘positive’ and ‘negative’ thinking, the Stockdale Paradox provides an accessible and practical philosophy for dealing with challenge and adversity.

Admiral Jim Stockdale, was a United States military officer held captive for eight years during the Vietnam War. Stockdale was tortured throughout his imprisonment but never lost faith that he would one day be released.

Admiral Stockdale stated

“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 noted, however, that it was always the most optimistic of his fellow detainees who died before being released. In the words of Admiral Stockdale

“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.”

Many of those who did not make it, often failed to confront the harsh reality of their situation, continually deluding themselves that they were about to be released. Ultimately the constant disappointments were too much for them to handle.

Admiral Stockdale accepted the harsh reality of his situation but rather than exist in a state of denial, he worked to lift the morale and prolong the lives of his fellow detainees. He created a tapping code so they could communicate and a milestone system that helped them deal with torture. He also sent coded messages hidden in his letters to his wife.

Putting the Paradox into Practice

When dealing with difficult situations, whether they be the challenges that come with attempting to achieve an important goal or dealing with adversity, the Stockdale Paradox is an approach that can provide the necessary fortitude.

Eric Greitens, former Navy Seal and author of the insightful and inspirational ‘Resilience – Hard Won Wisdom for Living a Better life’ sums up the application of the Stockdale Paradox

“In the face of hardship, you have to maintain a clear focus on your harsh reality. It does you no good to sugarcoat the facts. It does you no good to fantasize about what might be. You have to maintain clarity about your reality. The paradox, however, is that at the same time you have to find a way to maintain hope.’

In the words of Admiral Stockdale

“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.”




Reprinted by permission.


About the author: Martin Soorjoo

Founder of The Pitch Clinic, Martin Soorjoo is a pitch strategist. He coaches entrepreneurs world-wide, helping them launch and raise funding. Prior to founding The Pitch Clinic, Martin spent 15 years as a former award winning attorney. He has worked with start-ups and investors, including senior investment bankers, venture capitalists and angel investors. During this period Martin raised several million dollars, including negotiating one deal worth $75 Million. This experience has equipped him with unique insights into the challenges start-ups face and how investors make decisions. He is a Certified Master Practitioner of Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP) and an expert in body language.

Martin is the author of ‘Here’s the Pitch‘.

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