“It is in disaster, not success, that the heros and the bumbs get sorted out”
— James Stockdale

We will remember this time for generations. It has impacted millions across the world, if not billions. The most challenging in this pandemic is not the virus itself and the fear. It’s the uncertainty of tomorrow. Our mind is wired to feel certain, to have the same routine, same job, same environment. Suddenly everything is changing almost every day and what was normal life yesterday is very different today and more disturbing is that we don’t know what will happen tomorrow.

Firstly most of us were in denial that this is happening. That it is a real threat. Once we accepted this fact we started to believe that it is a short-term problem and soon everything will be back to normal, so you wait but then you realize that problem is not gone after weeks or even months. You start to hear that people you knew have died. Your hopes about back to normal have crashed several times.

Anxiety goes over the roof.

But anxiety doesn’t help you to get anywhere. Instead, think of using Stockdale Paradox as a mental model in this challenging time.

James Stockdale was a U.S. naval aviator who was shot down in a combat mission over North Vietnam on September 9, 1965, and was the senior naval officer held captive as an American prisoner of war for over seven and one-half years. He was tortured over 20 times and denied medical attention for a severely injured leg he endured during capture.

Stockdale led a prison resistance movement, and created and enforced a code of conduct for all U.S. prisoners that governed torture, secret communications, and behavior. After his release, he was promoted to Vice Admiral, and on March 4, 1976, he was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor, the nation’s highest military accolade.

During this horrific period, Stockdale was repeatedly tortured and had no reason to believe he’d make it out alive. Held in the clutches of the grim reality of his hell world, he found a way to stay alive by embracing both the harshness of his situation with a balance of healthy optimism. Balancing realism and optimism in a dire situation is key to success.

In paradox we often find some of the greatest bits of wisdom. The difficulty in understanding a paradox comes from the fact that you have two contradictory elements that create tension and you need to constantly balance between them. The best way to understand paradoxes is to experience them.

Stockdale explained this idea as the following: “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.”

In the most simplest explanation of this paradox, it’s the idea of hoping for the best, but acknowledging and preparing for the worst.

The ability to acknowledge your situation and balance optimism with realism comes from an understanding of the Stockdale Paradox. This contradictory way of thinking was the strength that led James through those trying years. Such paradoxical thinking, whether you consciously know it or not has been one of the defining philosophies for great leaders making it through hardship and reaching their goals.

Whether it’s weathering through a torturous imprisonment in a POW camp or going through your own trials and tribulations, the Stockdale Paradox has merit as a way of thinking and acting for any trying times in a person’s life.

The inherent contradictory dichotomy in the paradox holds a great lesson for how to achieve success and overcome difficult obstacles. It also flies right in the face of unbridled optimists and those positivity peddlers whose advice pervades nearly every self-help book or guru spiel out there.

In a discussion with Collins for his book, Stockdale speaks about how the optimists fared in camp. The dialogue goes:

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,

given what he’d said a hundred meters earlier.

“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.”

To put it simply Optimism is: I’m getting out on Christmas. Woohoo! Pessimism: I’m never getting out. Sigh. Realism: I may or may not get out. Who cares? Let’s deal in a best way with what is in front of me.

Applying Stockdale Paradox in daily life

We want to be successful, happy and have achieved something no matter how trivial or personal it may be. Reaching this state of accomplishment isn’t going to come just by positive visualisation. That’s all well and good and it makes us feel nice. It’s why so many people like to listen to the endless screeds of “business gurus” and motivational shysters promising us the world if we only just learned to change our mindset.

Confronting the entire brevity of your situation is instrumental for success. There’s a bit of positive visualisation in there, but it needs to be counterbalanced with the thought that you can utterly fail and to put it frankly — your current existence might be absolutely miserable and hopeless. Even more, you can die. But to be honest we are not immortal anyway. It’s just a matter of time. Accepting this fact makes you feel okay and less anxious. It is also about finding that balance between acceptance of immortality and desire to live and thrive. Face fearlessly the brutality of what is in front of you, don’t lose faith, your wildest dreams just might come true. . . hence the paradox.

It’s not about choosing which side to take, but instead learning to embrace both feelings in opposition to one another and realize they’re necessary and interconnected.


Think about your current goal and understand your level of positive thinking about the result and how you can calibrate it.

  • Do you have faith in achieving it?
  • Do you understand that it might be extremely difficult?
  • How you can keep going towards your goals if such hardship will appear?
  • What is your plan to deal with such difficulties?
  • How you will stay positive and true to your faith?
  • “How can you maintain a realistic view of your current situation and yet preserve the belief that in the end, you will succeed?

If we use the Pareto principle then maybe the right combination is 20% focus on the future desired results and 80% on the current things in front of us that we need to tackle in the most efficient way.

Assume your chance of success is not more than 20%, so it is not really guaranteed. Now ask yourself how you can maximize this chance by daily actions. Keep going step by step.

When Elon Musk was staring Tesla and Space X he saw the probability to fail is > than 90%

But with this assumption he worked hard towards increasing such probability.

If you are interested to learn more mental models, how to make better decisions, and train a strong and smart mind then you can find them in the Bold app.