The most powerful paradox for businesses, brands and life

I’ve been a casual student of Stoic philosophy for many years and in particular of the slave philosopher Epictetus. I was first introduced to Epictetus when reading Admiral Jim Stockdale’s memoir In Love and War about his time in captivity during the Vietnam War.

Admiral Stockdale is a well-known figure in military and political circles, but perhaps more famous these days as the inspiration behind the “Stockdale Paradox” from Jim Collins’ book Good to Great.

I’ve written about this in detail before. But at a recent School of Life event about Stoic philosophy I was again reminded of the enduring nature of the story and lessons when a question was asked about how to not be carried away by irrational optimism of good times, or devastated by events that don’t go your way.

For those unfamiliar with Stockdale’s story as told in Good to Great:

“Tortured over twenty times during his eight-year imprisonment from 1965-1973, Stockdale lived out the war without any prisoner’s rights, no set release date, and no certainty as to whether he would even survive to see his family again…”

Stockdale was eventually released, going on to become the first three-star officer in the history of the navy to wear both aviator wings and the Congressional Medal of Honor.

When reading about Stockdale’s experience in the confronting book In Love and War about Stockdale’s experience, Collins found himself thinking:

“If it feels depressing for me, how on earth did he deal with it when he was actually there and did not know the end of the story?

“I never lost faith in the end of the story,” he said, when I asked him. “I never doubted not only that I would get out, but also that I would prevail in the and turn the experience into the defining event of my life, which in retrospect, I would not trade.”

Collins goes on to ask Stockdale: “Who didn’t make it out?”

“Oh that’s easy,” he said. “The optimists.” … “they were the ones who said, ‘We’re going to be out by Christmas.’ And Christmas would come and go. Then they’d say, ‘We’re going to be out by Easter.’ And Easter would come and go. And then Thanksgiving, and then it would be Christmas again. And they died of a broken heart.” … “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 may be.” … “We’re not getting out by Christmas; deal with it!”

Collins came to describe the lesson in the following way.

“Retain faith that you will prevail in the end, regardless of the difficulties AND confront the brutal facts of your current reality no matter what they might be.”

The stark lesson of the Stockdale Paradox, of the tension between reality and faith, it a powerful one for both businesses and life.

In general I think we do faith pretty well. You can barely turn around without being told to be positive; that if you can think it, you can do it. Nothing is beyond you. Start today! There is a whole industry dedicated to supporting our faith.

Less supported, talked about or examined are those pesky current reality brutal facts. While blue sky and vision sessions can be great fun to be part of – you can get a contact high just being in the room – any session at the other end of the spectrum is usually the opposite and often actively avoided.

Delving into “what is” can be a sobering experience, enough to shake the strongest of faith. But delve we must. The key here is the AND of the paradox. Faith without the brutal facts is an almost sure path to eventual despair. Brutal facts without faith, is a path to hopelessness. Who hasn’t been overwhelmed by swirling events in their businesses or lives at least once?

The identity of our organisations and the resulting brand is built from what is found through that AND. Because while making promises based on faith is pretty easy, making promises you CAN keep, means you’ve got to be able to look “what is” squarely in the face.

So, are you, like Stockdale willing to “shoulder the burden of command, doing everything he could to create conditions that would increase the number of prisoners who would survive unbroken, while fighting an internal war against his captors and their attempts to use prisoners for propaganda…”?

Or are you thinking you’ll be out by Christmas?

See you next week.

Michel is an Independent Brand Thinker and Adviser dedicated to helping organisations make promises they can keep and keep the promises they make – with a strong, resilient organisation as the result. You can find Michel at michelhogan.com or you can follow her on Twitter @michelhogan

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Tony Arena
5 years ago

Thanks for the article Michel.

The key to transforming oneself into the Stoic sophos (wise person) is to learn what is ‘in one’s power’

In smaller businesses, the great challenge is to understand what is “in one’s power”. Very few people “have it all”. We are either optimistic or have our strength in the strategy and planning department. If you have both, you are so lucky.

Of course, if you don’t have strength in the area where you need it, your only option is to hire it, outsource to find it or get a partner who can offer this skill set.

The most successful businesses that I see have two partners with complementary skill sets. One has the blue sky philosophy and the other keeps the reins on idea flow and also the budget. With good synergy between the two, the sky truly is the limit.

Epictetus encourages us to think of life as a festival, as something that we can live through joyously, able to put up with any hardships that befall us because we have our eye on the larger spectacle that is taking place.

Wouldn’t that be wonderful!

Michel Hogan
Michel Hogan
5 years ago
Reply to  Tony Arena

Tony, Indeed there are many ways to achieve the AND – thank you for your thoughtful addition.