How Stockdale’s Paradox Can Help You Deal With Uncertainty

Believing in a better future – while still acknowledging the darkness of our current reality – now seems almost impossible. This can be critical.

As James Stockdale, a Vietnam veteran who spent seven years as a prisoner of war, said about his torturous imprisonment : “You must never confuse the belief that you will win in the end – which you can never afford to lose – with the discipline to resist. the most cruel facts of your present reality, whatever they may be. “

Stockdale, who has been brutally tortured for seven years in Vietnam, not knowing if he will return home again, when and when he attributes his survival to his ability to combine tough pragmatism with unshakable hope for the future. This is what is now called the Stockdale paradox.

“Seeing the path ahead is incredibly powerful,” says Tom Gilovich , professor of psychology at Cornell University. Even if the odds are slim, even if the situation seems dire, anticipating the way forward – even if imaginary – can be the key to getting yourself together and moving forward every day, even in the midst of incredible challenges.

The weeks and months ahead seem to be some of the most difficult we have ever faced, both as individuals and as a society. No matter how many times we wash our hands, how thoroughly we disinfect all surfaces, or how strictly we stay at home, we can still get sick and die. Our loved ones could get sick and die.

In addition, our economy is crashing. Millions of people are out of work, and millions of people risk their lives every day to provide us with basic necessities such as food and medical care.

So how can we maintain hope for the future while accepting the harsh reality of the current situation? How can we keep moving forward even when the odds seem bleak and the situation dire?

“We know what we need to do, what our job is,” says Gilovich. We may not have complete control over who gets sick and who doesn’t, but we are in control of our own actions. Many of us have the privilege of staying at home to practice physical distancing and to do our part to stop the spread. We have control over the measures, such as washing your hands and disinfect surfaces. We can do our part to flatten the curve and slow the spread, and help protect healthcare providers who risk their lives to care for their patients.

No one can escape this pandemic unharmed, although the severity of the consequences will vary from person to person. We also do not know how this pandemic will end or when it will end . This is the harsh reality of today: there are so many things in our current situation that we simply don’t know. We don’t know if our loved ones will survive. We don’t know what the new normal will look like. We just don’t know.

As Stockdale said in an interview, those who held onto a false sense of optimism did not survive because “they were the ones who said, ‘We’re going to leave for Christmas.’ And Christmas will come and Christmas will go away. Then they said, “We’re going to leave for Easter.” And Easter will come, and Easter will pass. And then Thanksgiving, and then Christmas again. And they died of a broken heart. “

If we believe that this will all be over in a few weeks – or that when it does, the world will return to what it used to be – it’s the same as that Stockdale prisoners believe they will be gone by Christmas, Easter, or Thanksgiving. This is the path to a broken heart.

If we transcend blind optimism, we can push forward into new territory, carrying with us both an understanding of the world as it is now and an unshakable hope for the future. And here’s how we handle it.

“There is every reason to believe that scientific ingenuity will provide the answer,” says Gilovich.

We may not be able to predict when this answer will come or what it will look like, but we can certainly trust that one day there will be an answer. By holding on to this faith – this faith – we will prevail.


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