Optimism and Stockdale Paradox

Earlier psychology was more interested with what was wrong with a person i.e. neurotic person was prime focus. To be depressed, pessimistic was neurotic, but at the same time desire to get ahead of others was also considered neurotic. Things changed when humanistic school started dominating psychology esp. works of Abraham Maslow and Carl Rogers.

Martin Seligman came with concept of learned optimism. He proposed that optimism can be learned (you are not born pessimist or optimist) i.e. even pessimist can learn to become optimist.

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Optimism is one of the highly valued traits in organisations. Optimism is considered must for success. But is optimism alone enough?

James Bond Stockdale was American naval officer, who was taken as prisoner of war by the Vietnamese during the Vietnam War. During his imprisonment he was tortured a lot, but he never lost his courage and hope and was finally released and returned to US. Later when James Collins was writing his book – Good to Great, he interviewed James.

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During interview James told him about his coping strategy-

“I never lost faith in the end of the story, 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.”

But at the same time he had very different view about optimistic soldiers, according to him they were first to die.

“Oh, that’s easy, 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.”

According James they died because their optimism divorced from reality.

“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.”

Collins calls this combination of optimism and confronting reality as Stockdale Paradox.

Yvon Chouinard is a rock climber, environmentalist and outdoor industry businessman. He feels that optimism without action is as good as pessimism.

“There’s no difference between a pessimist who says, “Oh it’s hopeless, so don’t bother doing anything.” and an optimist who says, “Don’t bother doing anything, it’s going to turn out fine anyways. Either way, nothing happens.”

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