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The Stockdale Paradox and the Coronavirus Hill Ahead


The order of the day during the novel coronavirus global pandemic: tempered optimism coupled with willingness to do one's part.

I thought of that while riding my bike...

I am grunting up a hill on my bike: pedal stroke, suck wind, pedal stroke, suck wind, pedal, pedal, pedal. This really sucks, I am thinking to myself as I literally pedal and suck wind and do nothing else. And today it sucks more than usual because—unlike most days—I don’t know how long I am going to have to keep grunting.

On this day, during my daily social distancing fitness ride, I do not have a flight plan but am instead meandering wherever the wind and the want might take me. As I wander and explore, I make a turn onto an unfamiliar road and now find myself on this hill that I’ve never been on before. The hill is steep and it’s long, but I don’t know how long. My legs hurt, I’m sucking wind, I’m grunting, pedaling, slowly chugging upward. This really sucks.

Still, despite all that, I am hopeful and optimistic. And it’s not because that’s who I am and that's what I do, either. Well, not just because. No, instead, I’m hopeful and optimistic because even though I do not know when the hill is going to end, I do know it is going to end. I will prevail. Of this I am absolutely, positively certain. All I have to do is stay out of my own head and keep my legs moving. I won’t ever deny it’s going to suck for a while—and it could suck really, really bad, I just don’t know yet—but I do know I will eventually make it to the top. I will prevail.

The Stockdale Paradox is kind of like riding a bike up a hill...

The Stockdale Paradox is kind of like riding a bike up a hill...

The Stockdale Paradox

I recently learned that this mindset, this way of thinking positive and pushing ever forward, even in the face of extreme adversity, is actually a thing. It’s called the Stockdale Paradox, named after Admiral James Stockdale by Jim Collins in the latter’s book Good to Great. In Chapter 4 of the book, Collins quotes from a personal interview with Admiral Stockdale:

“This is a very important lesson. 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.”

What makes this quote so extraordinary is that Admiral Stockdale wasn’t simply talking here about riding a bicycle up a hill. He was instead referring to his time as a prisoner of war in the Hanoi Hilton during the Vietnam War. He was talking about days where, as the senior ranking military officer in captivity, he was brutally and repeatedly tortured. Days when he didn’t know when he was going home, if he was going home, if he would survive. Days where he organized and motivated the other American troops in captivity, taught them to communicate stealthily, how to survive tortures, how to avoid being a North Vietnamese pawn, how to defy and endure and do their part as proud Americans. Days that ultimately numbered 2713. Let me repeat that staggering number: 2713. That’s more than 90 months! That’s nearly 7.5 years! That’s a long, long time to have unwavering faith, to have hope, to have confidence that you will prevail. But Stockdale did indeed have faith, hope and confidence, and he persevered. One day at a time. For 2713 days. And prevail he did, eventually receiving the Medal of Honor for his leadership during those darkest of days.

4 March 1976 - President Ford presents the Medal of Honor to Rear Admiral James Bond Stockdale

4 March 1976 - President Ford presents the Medal of Honor to Rear Admiral James Bond Stockdale

The COVID-19 Hill We Have to Climb

The Stockdale Paradox can be informative and useful as we—the collective we all across the country and all across the planet—face down the novel coronavirus crisis. We need to maintain robust and hearty optimism, true, but first and foremost we need to temper that optimism with some somber realism.

Here again, Admiral Stockdale’s experiences are illustrative. Jim Collins also asked Stockdale about those on the other side of the coin, those who didn’t prevail, didn’t make it home from Vietnam, and why they didn’t. Here’s what he had to say:

“Oh, that's easy, the optimists. Oh, 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.”

It’s not likely that we will die en masse of broken hearts, but instead this kind of attitude—what I’ll call counterproductive over-optimism—could lead us astray and contribute to a situation where people are less willing to do their part to combat the virus, flatten the curve, make the hill smaller and somewhat less challenging to climb. And if there’s one thing we need right now, it’s for everyone to continue to do their part, because we don’t know when this is going to be over.

How you can do your part

1. Listen to and follow the advice of the experts

2. Practice social distancing

3. Wash your hands more than you think you need to

4. Maintain a positive but realistic attitude

5. Remember that we aren't all in the same boat, but we are in the same kind of boat--and we need to "stay apart together."

Uncertain Timeline Calls for Tempered Optimism

Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, Director, National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, and member of the White House coronavirus response team recently said, “You don’t make the timeline, the virus makes the timeline.”

That’s just one of the brutal facts we need to face in our current reality, along with the fact that many more people are going to be diagnosed with the virus before it’s all over. And more people are going to die. In other words, this uphill climb we are on is going to suck, and it’s going to suck bad, and it’s going to suck for an undetermined period of time. We need to have the discipline to confront that while doing our part to mitigate the spread of the virus and retaining the belief that we will prevail.

The longer it takes for coronavirus to spread through the population, the more time hospitals have to prepare.  Credit: Drew Harris

The longer it takes for coronavirus to spread through the population, the more time hospitals have to prepare. Credit: Drew Harris

Ok, so it's not like riding a bike...

Yes, it's true that facing down the threat of a global pandemic is a far cry from grunting a bicycle up a hill. It's also not a perfect equivalent to James Stockdale's experiences as a POW in Vietnam, either. But both the bike ride and the prison camp experience can teach us a lot about the attitude we need going forward, and how we can get through this thing together. Because at the end of the day, one thing is absolutely true: we are all in the same kind of boat right now. Not in the same boat, mind you, but the same kind of boat. We need to work together on doing our part, staying apart and keeping the faith.

It's going to suck, but we will prevail. We always do.

Queen Elizabeth: "We will succeed."

The Queen of England Gets It

We will succeed, and that success will belong to every one of us. We should take comfort that while we may have more still to endure, better days will return.

We will be with our friends again.

We will be with our families again.

We will meet again.

— Queen Elizabeth, 5 April 2020

© 2020 greg cain


Robert Sacchi on June 09, 2020:

Ho Chi Minh understood Americans very well. He realized the key to eventual victory was killing Americans. His own casualties were irrelevant. In the Tet Offensive by the usual metrics he lost. Ho Chi Minh knew it would make Americans war weary. In an odd way the scenario is playing out again. At first people supported the stay at home strategy. The policy didn't work as hoped so now many people are frustrated and are demanding an end to the policy.

greg cain (author) from Moscow, Idaho, USA on June 09, 2020:

Robert - Great points all. There has been a dearth of quality, meaningful leadership worldwide throughout this whole affair.

And yes, the US did not win in Vietnam. In fact the loss of real estate and international 'prestige' got worse over time. Not much else to be said. Isn't it ironic, though, how the body bag count was SO important to absolutely everyone during that war, and also how so many of us thought it appalling that we gave away 58,000+ American lives and had nothing to show for it? Further, by some accounts we (the US) were involved in that conflict for more than 10,000 days.

As you probably ascertained, this article was written on the front side of this year's pandemic, published originally on 30 March 2020, in fact. On that date, the US already had the most confirmed cases across the globe (160,000) and nearly 3,000 people had died by that time. In 70 days, then, our death toll has risen by nearly 108,000. Horrid is a good word, abysmal is also appropriate.

Robert Sacchi on June 09, 2020:

Interesting points. A cold fact is the experts don't have a good record when it comes to the coronavirus. The Chinese experts lied, the WHO experts swore to it, and the rest of the world's experts acted like bobbleheads. Another cold fact is while Admiral Stockdale, and many of the POWs he commanded prevailed they were on the losing side. As of 6/8/2020 we had 110,932 deaths, a mortality rate of 5.6% in the US. It seems we have a horrid record for containment and a mediocre record mortality wise.

greg cain (author) from Moscow, Idaho, USA on April 01, 2020:

Thanks, John. I appreciate the very complimentary words. I'm like just about everyone else when it comes to Covid-19--I don't want to concentrate too much on the negative. Still, we have to acknowledge it, not bury our heads in the sand like it's not happening, because it is. Stockdale's example is one worth emulating. Sadly, I think not many folks know much about him other than his brief run as Ross Perot's #2 back in the early 90s. He got raked over the coals for his self-deprecating style, which was so counter to all the other bloviating talking heads in politics at the time. Anyway, hope you and your family and the rest of the folks down under are doing well and being safe, too. Thanks for stopping by and taking the time to read the essay!

John Hansen from Gondwana Land on April 01, 2020:

Greg, this is one of the best articles I have read concerning Covid-19 and the attitude we need to get through these tough times. I thought the example of riding a bike up a long steep hill was a great example and the quote by 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,” needs to be read by everyone. In fact his story does. Thank you so much for sharing and may you and your family stay are and well.

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