Ingeborg van Teeseling

How the Stockdale Paradox Can Help Us Through 2020

The “Stockdale Paradox” is a method of facing the reality of the situation, with optimism and without baleful resignation.


Now, we are still sitting on the sofa, we need a way of dealing with that. All of it: the stress, the boredom, the drudgery, the feeling that this will never end. Looking for wisdom and advice, I came across something called the Stockdale Paradox.

The Stockdale Paradox was invented by Jim Collins, a writer of fairly boring business manuals. This one was called From Good to Great – Why Some Companies Make the Leap and Others Don’t. Nevertheless, often pearls can be found in the ugliest of oysters, and that is the case here. Because the Stockdale Paradox has much to teach us, and the man behind it is interesting too.

James Bond (what’s in a name?) Stockdale was born in 1923 in the United States. Because he came of age during WWII and wanted to do something, he enlisted in the Naval Academy when he was 19. For a would-be soldier, he was unlucky, because by the time he graduated the war was over.

After a few years on various ships as a gunnery officer, he decided that it was time for some more action and volunteered for flight training. Halfway through the 1950s, he was a test pilot, and because he had done a science degree in the meantime, it was his job to tutor his fellow pilots in math and physics. People like John Glenn. He was good at that, so the U.S. Military decided that it would be an idea to send this obviously smart young man to university. Stanford, to be precise, where he graduated in 1962 with a Masters in International Relations, specializing in the flavor of the moment: Communism.

For his own entertainment, he had also done a few courses in something much older: Stoicism. That would stand him in good stead in the next phase of his life.


The first thing to do, they believe, is to accept your fate, the situation that you are in. The second is to understand that although we don’t control what happens to us, we do control our own actions and responses.


Because Stockdale was a doer, he decided against academia and presented for duty the second the US ramped up the war in Vietnam. This found him as the commander of a fighter squadron attacking North Vietnamese torpedo boats during the Gulf of Tonkin incident in 1964 and bombing the bejesus out of the people on the ground throughout that year and well into 1965. On September 9th, his luck ran out when his plane was shot out of the air and landed in a small village, breaking his leg in the process. It was the start of a period as a POW that would last over seven years.

Stockdale was brought to the famous Hanoi Hilton, Hoa La Prison. Over time, he would become the ringleader of the prisoner resistance, the head of what the North Vietnamese called the Alcatraz Gang. Eleven men (most of them pilots) who were held in solitary confinement, in a concrete cell of 2 feet by 9 feet, without a window but with the light always on, in leg irons. All of them were tortured on a regular basis, routinely underfed, and isolated from everybody else.

Because Stockdale was the highest in rank, the North Vietnamese were eager to hold him up to the world as an example of how well they treated their prisoners. When Stockdale understood that they were avoiding hitting him in the face so they could parade him in front of a video camera and so the world, he immediately took action. First, he beat himself in the face with a stool and, when that didn’t do enough damage, he cut himself with a razor to disfigure himself.

He also tried to help out his colleagues, putting his reading of the Stoics in horrible practice. The Stoics were a group of philosophers in Rome and Ancient Greece who also believed more in doing than in talking. According to the Stoics, happiness comes from living as a rational being, by learning what you can and cannot control and acting accordingly.

The first thing to do, they believe, is to accept your fate, the situation that you are in. The second is to understand that although we don’t control what happens to us, we do control our own actions and responses.

So, act on what can be acted upon. Also, take a view from above and realize how small you are, but also how interdependent the world is. That means that you can’t do everything, but you do have responsibilities towards those around you. Try and be dispassionate. Emotions are futile, because there is no good or bad, only perception.

The ultimate goal is Amor Fati: love everything that happens to you, love fate. Use what happens to you as fuel and “intelligently respond to your needs and your duties as a sociable human being.”

For Stockdale, of all this meant that he taught his friends not to fight the situation, but respond to it. How do you deal with torture? By giving yourself permission to say something small every ten minutes or so. That way, you get a breather and you control the process, not your torturers. How do you deal with isolation? By setting up an internal communications system. How do you prevent yourself from being tortured into giving up your friends? You slit your wrists just enough, so they can’t get the information out of you. So, accept your fate, but stay in control as much as you can.

But then, there is the mind. Stockdale realized that what we think can kill us. So, after teaching his comrades to confront reality, he gave them something else. “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. I never lost faith. I never doubted not only that I would get out, but also that I would prevail and turn the experience into the defining event of my life, which, in retrospect, I would not trade.”

Nevertheless, the most dangerous thing in a situation that is out of your control is optimism. Optimism, Stockdale realized, can kill. “The optimists were the ones that didn’t make it. They were the ones who said: ‘We’re going to be out by Christmas.’ And Christmas would come and go. Then they would say Easter, and the same would happen. They died of a broken heart.”


So, that is the Stockdale Paradox: use the certainty of hope, but don’t let it turn into optimism. Realize that you are not in control, but grab any bit of it where you can.


So, that is the Stockdale Paradox: use the certainty of hope, but don’t let it turn into optimism. Realize that you are not in control, but grab any bit of it where you can. And help yourself out by standing by the people around you and the world as a whole.

While James Stockdale was in prison, his wife Sybil took a leaf out of her husband’s book. In 1966, after a year of following official government policy to keep quiet, Sybil got some friends together and founded the League of American Families of POWs and MIAs (Missing in Action).

For years, she knocked on every door and soon she was discussing policy on the highest levels. In 1970, she even testified in front of the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Foreign Affairs. Three years later, in January 1973, she spoke at the Paris Peace Talks, again putting her demands on the table: the release of everybody who was held, dead or alive, and a public acknowledgement of the mistreatment that the prisoners had had to endure.

A month later, her husband was released. He couldn’t stand, he couldn’t walk, he had problems with his eyesight, but he was free.

In 1976, President Ford gave him a Medal of Honor and a few years later he was made a vice-admiral. But because of his injuries, his military career was over. He started lecturing at Stanford and became a member of the Rockford Institute, a right-wing think tank. In 1984, Sybil and James Stockdale wrote In Love and War, that was made into a Hollywood movie in 1987.

The last public chapter of Stockdale’s life came in 1992, when he became the running mate for Ross Perot’s attempt to become the President of the United States. James Stockdale died from Alzheimer’s Disease in 2005, followed by Sybil (from Parkinson’s) ten years later. But his Paradox lives, and can be useful to us now: Amor Fati.


For this story, I used the following sources: 


Ingeborg van Teeseling

After migrating to Australia from Holland ten years ago and being warned by the Immigration Department against doing her job as a journalist, Ingeborg van Teeseling became a historian instead. She is writing a book and runs Lifebooks, telling people's life stories.