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Why the Optimists Didn’t Make it Out

This was, in my opinion, one of the best take-aways from Jim Collins’ book, ‘Good to Great’.

Simply stated, the Stockdale Principle says:
‘Retain faith that you will prevail in the end, regardless of difficulties.

AND, at the same time . . . confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be.’

Admiral Jim Stockdale was the highest-ranking U.S. officer in the “Hanoi Hilton” during the Vietnam war. In his eight years in captivity he was tortured over twenty times and never knew when—or if—he would be released. In the prison, he dutifully led the other prisoners working for the highest possible survival rate.

When Jim Collins asked Stockdale how he managed to survive, he replied: “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.”

From Good to Great . . .

“Who didn’t make it out?”

“Oh that’s easy,” he said. “The optimists.”

“The optimists? I don’t understand,” I said, now completely confused.

“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.”

Another long pause and more walking. Then he turned to me and said, “This is the important lesson. You must never confuse faith that you will prevail in the end—which you can not afford to lose—with the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be.”

To this day I carry the mental image of Stockdale admonishing the optimists: “We’re not getting out by Christmas; deal with it!“

“Life is unfair—sometimes to our advantage, sometimes to our disadvantage. We will all experience disappointments and crushing events somewhere along the way, setbacks for which there is no ‘reason,’ no one to blame . . . What separates people, Stockdale taught me, is not the presence or absence of difficulty, but how they deal with the inevitable difficulties of life.”

We could all benefit from practicing the Stockdale Principle.

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