I recently came across the “Stockdale Paradox” which is the idea that one needs to maintain resolute faith that they have the capabilities to prevail to the end, even through life’s extreme difficulties but at the same time maintain a discipline to confront the most brutal realities life gives you.
Well, personally I can say this past year can be classified as one of life’s extreme difficulties. The pandemic hit everyone by surprise and I struggled to maintain my mental health, my career, and my overall well-being. The major challenge I faced was how to maintain a positive outlook so that I can remain productive and still work towards my goals, even though life handed me well, grenades.
Stockdale was a prisoner of war for 7 and a half years in Vietnam. In his memoir and across many interviews, he stated that he survived because he never lost faith in the end story. But he didn’t describe himself as an optimist. Actually, he felt optimism was the cause of many of the other prisoners' unfortunate decease. The optimistic prisoners kept looking towards a better future and a time that they will be freed, but they were not learning how to cope with their horrific present and as they waited and their freedom didn’t come, Stockdale laments, “they died of a broken heart”.
We still don’t know when this pandemic will end, and if it will end. Those of us who thought and continue to think that this will be over by spring or fall 2021, need to change our perspectives and understand that we can’t give this pandemic an end date. We need to look at the reality now, learn to live it out the best way, and simultaneously have faith that in the end, whatever the external outcome, we ourselves will prevail.
Here is some advice I can give based on the Stockdale Paradox and how it can help us as individuals and companies stay positive even during times of crisis:
Perspective is key. Even though COVID 19 is here, we as humanity have been through worse. I look at my grandparents (both paternal and maternal) as a great example. My grandparents are Jewish and grew up in Nazi-Regime Europe. As Hitler took power, their entire lives changed and were put through persecution and nearly genocide, but they survived. When I learned of each of their stories of survival, there was a pattern of having strong faith and schemes of how they could escape. Viktor Frankl, a famous psychologist who also survived the Holocaust, developed a theory that it is through meaning and purpose in life that individuals can endure hardships. His book "Man Search for Meaning" exemplifies this vitality of having purpose through many survivors’ tales.
So, what does this mean for us during life in a global pandemic? It means searching for that purpose and holding on to it. When we have a purpose we can maintain faith we will prevail.
Connecting Our Purpose To Who We Are Now
Emergency responders are taught to ask people their names and their skills when assessing a tragedy and the people involved. They do this to give the people they’re rescuing the strength to mentally return to who they are and focus on making it through. In a survival situation, it’s so important that people connect to their identities, roles, and values because this is how we can survive.
We all have talents and skills that make us valuable. Practice ways to maintain a strong identity of yourself. This can be by stating your values aloud, writing them down, or sharing them with others. Take your workplace for example, a company consists of many individuals holding many different skills and working towards goals. Try incorporating reiterating yours and your colleagues’ values often during meetings and discussions. This can help companies optimize productivity because employee identity is being valued and keeps them focused and connected to their goals. Strong identities of who we are and who we will be, give us the positive reinforcement we need to remain productive now and in the future.
Repeat Your Purpose
To hold onto this faith in ourselves, we need to remember why. Repeat your purpose daily or weekly and stay committed to high-level goals. When we repeat our purpose we can better remember that we have one and as obstacles come our way we are better prepared to face their realities and overcome them. Turn those obstacles into small goals and tasks that support the longer goals. This keeps everything a goal and therefore can be managed.
CEOs and managers should practice this as well with their employees. Constantly reminding employees about their purpose and how it is an intricate part in making the company valuable motivates people past any doubts they may have. When rapid changes are happening instill confidence in yourself or your employees so that self-doubt does not take over and impairs our ability to take in data as we are second-guessing ourselves. Just because there is a crisis, don’t doubt yourself or your employees. Ask yourself, what is not making sense. Concrete questions like this allow yourself or your employees to trust instincts and personal values.
Normalize Admitting Mistakes
Crises are real and they are always happening. Because they are unpredictable, we haven’t even thought of how to prepare for them, so as they come we often need to act fast and this unpreparedness inevitably causes mistakes. No world leader expected COVID 19 and the effect it had on their citizens... and many policymakers made vast mistakes in COVID-related management. Few leaders have admitted to them, but those who did, led them to create actual productive solutions. Andres Tegnell, a leading epidemiologist behind Sweden’s initial COVID 19 response (light to no lockdowns), admitted that his strategy resulted in too many deaths and that
"If we were to encounter the same illness with the same knowledge that we have today, I think our response would be different..."
Normalizing the admission of your mistakes is the only way you can learn to overcome them. Workplaces should create no judgment spaces and times for discussing weak spots so that employees can grow and create trust in each other. Leaders, especially need to adopt transparency during difficult times. This instills trust and confidence in faith towards their company, work, and ultimate purpose.
Very often we think optimism is the only way to stay positive. But this isn’t fully true. We need to dream about a brighter future but at the same time be in the present to deal with the challenging realities. It’s the perfect combination of seeing the glass half full and dealing with any obstacles the glass may give us. We can not afford to lose faith that we will prevail and the best support to that is to maintain the discipline to confront reality as it is. This is really the only way that we can continue to remain positive even through life’s hardships because we are working, growing and knowing that we have everything we need in ourselves to prevail.