The 365 Commitment

The Stockdale Paradox

I remember the Vice Presidential debate on October 13th 1992. Al Gore was debating Dan Quayle. A week before the event it was announced that the Vice Presidential candidate James Stockdale was also going to be debating. Ross Perot was gaining once again in the polls, and his numbers were high enough that they could no longer ignore him. So with little preparation time the 69 year old man hit the debate stage with a live audience and a prime time spot on all the major news channels.

Ross Perot did not even have a chance to meet with him to discuss policy. They had barely time to really think about taking this presidential bid seriously. Mr. Perot picked Stockdale for his running mate for reasons that the public would never learn. The fateful moment came when Hal Bruno asked him to introduce himself and he began by asking the following questions, “Who am I and Why am I here?” These were rhetorical questions. Stockdale was a philosopher, and even taught such things at Stanford. He was presupposing that his audience would be intrigued by this. They did applaud, at least the live studio audience did. He was rough however and one point needed to adjust his hearing aid. The press ridiculed him the next day, Saturday Night Live ran a skit. Stockdale became synonymous with an old senile politician who does not know where he is or why he is there.

The irreverent attitude of the media circus did not really understand who this man was or what he represented. At the time, there was a fervor going on about many things and the disrespect of our politicians seems to be of no consequence. They seemed to be doing a fine job of that themselves! What the public did not know was that this man was one of the most decorated soldiers to ever wear a uniform. He was a POW in the Hanoi Hilton for most of Vietnam and was a brilliant man with a remarkable career history. He was thrust into the limelight by Perot, because with all his quirkiness, Perot could at least recognized greatness. Too bad the group think was pretty darn stupid, and frankly still is.

Reading from wiki, Dennis Miller summed it up the best:

“Now I know (Stockdale’s name has) become a buzzword in this culture for doddering old man, but let’s look at the record, folks. The guy was the first guy in and the last guy out of Vietnam, a war that many Americans, including our present President, did not want to dirty their hands with. The reason he had to turn his hearing aid on at that debate is because those fucking animals knocked his eardrums out when he wouldn’t spill his guts. He teaches philosophy at Stanford University, he’s a brilliant, sensitive, courageous man. And yet he committed the one unpardonable sin in our culture: he was bad on television.”

Jim Collins, author of many business books, is how I become most acquainted with Stockdale. Later in life I would get to know him as a modern day Stoic philosopher. Many of his books read as a tribute to ancient Greek thinking. He claims to have remembered many of the teachings of Epicurus while he was a prison of war. It was that type of thinking that kept him alive and able to keep his cool during even the most torturous conditions. One of the ways of thinking that Stockdale had during his POW experience was what Collins called “the Stockdale Paradox.”

This is basically a simple concept, yet very Stoic in nature. Stockdale indicated that the worst thing that you could have was hope while a POW. It was ok to have faith, but hope was a killer. This paradox was interesting. I will see if I can explain paraphrasing his words. Stockdale wrote a whole book on this, you can get it on Kindle now. He said that the POWs that would keep themselves motivated to survive by saying in their hearts, I will be out by Christmas were basically dead men walking. This is because Christmas would come, and they would not be free. They would be completely shattered. They would fall apart. Maybe they would come up with their next hope, but that would get shattered too and pretty soon they would become almost comatose and soon dead.

Stockdale said that you have to have faith that things will work out, for instance, he had faith that he would indeed survive the ordeal. However, you must be a realist about your situation, environment and circumstances. Have faith the future will work out, but deal with what is front of you at all times. Do not get so focused on future events that you do not deal with the reality of today. So faith for the right outcome, focus on today. As it seems hope for a future state, without dealing with the realities of the day is a critical error that people can make.

I believe that the commitment I have been following has helped me develop myself to be on the right side of this Stockdale paradox. Reviewing carefully each day, and ending the day in review has certainly kept me focused on the hear and now.

Guy Reams

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