Paul Hargreaves: The Stockdale Paradox
“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.” — Admiral James Stockdale.
Admiral Stockdale spent seven years in a prisoner of war camp in Vietnam and learned to never lose faith in the end of the story yet learned to live each day with all the hardships that each day brought. When asked about the mentality of those who didn’t make it out of the camps, Stockdale said that they were ‘the optimists’. The ones who said they were going to be out by Christmas and Christmas came and went without release. Then the optimists said they would be out by Easter, which also came and went. Then it was Thanksgiving and back to Christmas again. They eventually died of a broken heart.
Does this sound familiar with the last year? In no way am I comparing our current situation with that of being in a prisoner of war camp, but there are lessons to be learned about the mentality to get through hardships great and small. From all the way back to last March we have since had several false dawn dates announced by our government. First it was the end of the initial (and we thought only) lockdown and then it was ‘eat out to help out’ to revitalise the hospitality industry as it moved back to normal, only for that to be interrupted first by tiers, then lockdown 2.0 and 3.0. After that it was Christmas, we would be able to finally celebrate with our families and focus on the New Year. Christmas was then cancelled only a few days before. This constant looking forward to better things which aren’t realised has become normal.
You can see how damaging it can be for our wellbeing and mental health to constantly be looking forward to a better future, only for that future to be out of our grasp just before we reach the summit. Back in October I was fortunate enough to be able to go on holiday to Northern Ireland and one day decided to climb the highest mountain there. It was a beautiful day at sea level, but became colder and windier as I ascended and then I was in the clouds as I was nearing the summit. Three times I was convinced I could see the peak and three times it turned out to be a false summit and I still had a long way to go. It was a real effort, with my level of fitness, to summon the energy to keep going to the top. A better attitude would have been to focus on my feet, to enjoy the wind and the fresh air without constantly searching for the finish line which was then taken away from me.
Looking at where we are right now is exactly what is best to do in our current situation. Live each day at a time. Be thankful for our health and that of our loved ones. Get outside and enjoy the fresh air. Focus on a daily routine and a sense of accomplishment of what we can achieve on a small scale each day without constantly longing for the finish line. Looking forward to the end of all this is especially easy to do that right now, particularly if you are over 50 like me with a vaccination in sight. But I promise you that won’t be the end of this pandemic. More virus mutations are bound to come and we have yet to see the true economic devastation resulting from Covid as many millions are still being paid by the government on the furlough scheme. In addition we will have to live with the consequences of a bad Brexit deal for many years to come. In January exports by British companies to the EU (nearly half our total exports) were 68% down.
Sorry to not be more optimistic, but I am only being true to the Stockdale paradox. Our current reality is brutal for many, yet we can enjoy each day, we can be thankful for much and we can be happy if we focus on today and stop constantly longing for a better future.