Is optimism the best way to overcome adversity? Lessons from a P.O.W.

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When faced with difficulty, usually the most common advice we are given or give is “stay positive”. There is a whole self-help industry out there and numerous “experts” that are based on optimism: “look at the bright side”, “don’t to lose faith”, “things will get better”. All it takes to overcome your adversity is to change your mind, abolish negative thoughts and remain optimistic. But if it were so simple, why do so many people, when in the midst of adversity, find it so hard to remain optimistic and finally give up? Is just remaining optimistic enough to overcome tough times or it takes something more?

A few years back, at the time when I was starting my training center in Athens, Greece, I read Jim Collin’s best-selling business book “Good to Great”. The book is about the main characteristics of businesses that thrive over time. In one of the chapters, the author talks about the “Stockdale Paradox” to describe the contradictory observation that some business leaders remain optimistic about the final outcome of an endeavor (or their business in general), while facing extreme adversity, when such a possibility seems distant or even impossible.

The Stockdale Paradox is named after the late Vietnam veteran and naval pilot James Stockdale. A high ranking officer, Stockdale had already completed two tours in Vietnam, when during a bombing raid over enemy territory his plane was shot down. He managed to eject from his doomed aircraft and parachuted in enemy territory, right in the middle of a small Vietnamese town. Upon capture, he was severely beaten and then thrown in the infamous Hoe Lo Prison known as the “Hanoi Hilton”. At the time, he was the highest ranking POW to be captured in the war.

James Stockdale

In prison, Stockdale suffered greatly, as he was mistreated, repeatedly tortured and thrown into isolation, bound with iron shackles for years! However, from the first minute of his captivity, he was determined to lead his fellow prisoners during their impossible circumstances. He wanted them to maintain their dignity and control of self, while facing daily humiliation, physical and psychological violence. So he organized some form of “resistance”. To communicate with other POW’s, he devised a code that allowed prisoners to talk between them and used it to issue instructions and provide encouragement. He made up rules to help prisoners to survive torture, giving specific directions on when to give some information, as it was almost impossible not to break during interrogation. In another occasion, he injured himself in the face so as not to be publicly displayed for propaganda purposes. Although he was repeatedly punished for his actions he kept on until his final release, eight years after his capture. For his leadership during his captivity he was awarded the Medal of Honor.

It’s hard to imagine what these men suffered all these years. What kind of mindset one must posses to get through torture, isolation and prolonged deprivation of their freedom? Stockdale – who was a student and follower of the philosophical school of Stoicism – found the strength to sustain this ordeal by first accepting his reality. He explained that he never told himself or his men that everything was going to be fine and that they would get to go home soon. To the contrary. His message was “that things are bad and will get worse, but in the end we will win!”.

And this in a nutshell is the Paradox: To believe that you will win in the end, while at the same time acknowledging and accepting current adversities. Optimism must be go hand in hand with realism for the outcome to be positive. Like Stockdale said in his interview with Collins:

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.

James Stockdale

This is lesson for all of us facing any kind of adversity in our lives. We must accept the circumstances and face the truth, learn how to sustain the inevitable, focus on what we have control of (like our emotions) and accept everything that we don’t. Avoiding the two emotional extremes, the naive, “wishful thinking optimism”, that everything will all be alright soon and thoughts of doom and destruction, allows for a clearer view of reality and increase our chances of success. When Stockdale was asked who didn’t make it out of the camp he pointed out that it was the optimists! The soldiers that comforted themselves and others that “they ‘d be home by Christmas or Eastern.” And when this didn’t happen, they got disappointed and gave up. They failed to face the circumstances and the circumstances beat them.

So, yes, optimism is the right answer. But remaining optimistic must not be confused with wishful thinking, which is a naive approach to reassure the mind that everything will be OK. It must function as a reminder that we have all it takes to win. But “victory” will not come easy. Dig in an weather the storm. The sun will shine eventually.

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2 Comments

Join the discussion and tell us your opinion.

Alexander Papaioannoureply
13 April 2020 at 13:48

Great info on this crucial distinction between “naive optimist” and “realistic fighter”. If we want to go a bit deeper we could say that there are also some other characteristics that go along. In the first category this person most probable is someone who wishes things- not plans to achieve them, who can’t accept failure and try again, who cannot teach himself to endure pain.In the second category belong people who are in addition accepting situations, facing truth, recognize mistakes, understand their real capacities and not fake ones. This kind of attitude though should be teached at schools from young ages. Thanx Kostas for sharing with us in such a comprehensive way!

Kostas Chatzichristosreply
13 April 2020 at 14:08
– In reply to: Alexander Papaioannou

Schools have to change their entire approach on what constitutes a mistake, urge kids to try their limits and endure the consequences. Let’s not forget thought the role of family in raising resilient individuals. Thanks for the comment 🙂

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