The wisdom of the “Stockdale Paradox “


As an executive life coach, I strive to help my clients to the greatest degree possible, and my blogs are no exception. My intent is to publish as much valuable content as I can to help you find your full potential and improve your life.

To guide your journey, I have handpicked some life-changing subjects that I have encountered with my clients as well as in my life, and it’s my absolute pleasure to share them with you in this post and those to come.

I believe every single post will be a helpful tool that you can add to your arsenal for self-development.

With my client’s permission, I will share some of the “Aha” moments he encountered in one of our sessions, so that we can all learn from his experience.

Lately, my client’s life has been like a rollercoaster – he’s had some high moments where he felt amazing when things were great, yet when things didn’t go the way he expected them to go, his mood changed and he felt stuck.

In his own words, my client, whom we’ll refer to as M, describes how he has been feeling lately:

“It has been three days, and I have been feeling so weighed down and overwhelmed, as if quicksand has sucked me in.

I have been feeling like I am slipping deeper and deeper into a hole without even knowing how I got there and how am I going to get out.

I have tried to listen to motivational speaking videos on YouTube, which worked for a moment but my negative thoughts were wrestling against all these positive good vibes and I gave in again.

The next day, I woke up, and I dreaded the way I have been eating, the way I have been feeling and I hated giving up on myself so I thought of calling you, so I can get motivated again and focus on what’s important.

The first thing that I had to do with M is encourage him to take the “Energy Leadership Assessment” (ELI). The ELI is an attitudinal assessment tool that captures how an individual currently perceives and approaches work and life.

With the awareness and insights gained through the Energy Leadership Index debrief, clients have the opportunity to reshape their attitudes and worldview and “transform who they are.”

So why is the assessment important for M?

Most people just go through the motions in life, and are mostly to somewhat disengaged from true passion and fulfillment. When they become more conscious, their stress level decreases, and their productivity, pleasure and feelings of purpose and fulfillment increase.

So, I reviewed M’s results, and we came up with some strategies for his challenge.

The results showed that he had a high percentage of Level 1 and Level 2 energies.

According to Bruce Schneider, there are 7 levels of energies; I will speak only briefly about Level 1 and 2.

Level 1 Energy: When a person has any energy in this level, they are a victim to (at the effect of) certain events, thoughts, beliefs, emotions, and perceptions that hold them back from success. Level 1 energy includes thoughts and feelings of fear, worry, self-doubt…People usually feel like they have a lack of choice or options

Level 2 Energy is characterized by conflict (internal and external), with the core emotion being anger. This energy contains thoughts of antagonism, struggle, resistance, blame, and frustration.

From the Level 2 perspective, everything tends to be viewed as black or white, right or wrong, good or bad. These judgments result in limited options, as the full scope of available possibilities is not apparent to the person operating from this level.

Most people are surprised by how much Level 1 and Level 2 catabolic energy they have in their results, especially in response to stress.

For M, these energies are distractions that draw away from his full focus and engagement. That’s what catabolic energy does. It is a draining energy; it clouds out judgment and stops us from seeing things the way they are.

To help him, I had to dig a little deeper to find out what was really going on under the surface. So, I started asking him some questions. Good coaching questions give the person the space to step back and examine themselves.

The right question can stop a client in his or her tracks and allow that person to see their own actions from a different perspective.

I teach my clients the art of asking good questions so that they can catch themselves in the act, change their actions in the moment, and find self-guided solutions in the future without having to rely on me.

With M, we finally got to the point where we figured out what was going on.

One technique that helped him was reframing the way he had viewed recent developments in his life. We also worked on changing some of his limiting beliefs.

People see things differently; no two human beings have the exact same experiences. Each one of us has created a model and a set of filters to guide us in the world; this model is based in part upon the experiences we’ve been through.

Thus, I shared with him the wisdom I’ve learned from Jim Collins’ book Good To Great, a groundbreaking corporate self-help and leadership book.

Collins and his team observed that there is a mindset present in good-to-great companies, and he labeled it the “Stockdale Paradox”.

“The name refers to Admiral Jim Stockdale, who was the highest ranking United States military officer in the “Hanoi Hilton” prisoner-of-war camp during the height of the Vietnam War. Tortured over 20 times during his eight-year imprisonment from 1965 to 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 explained his point 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.”

So, what exactly is the “Stockdale Paradox”?

The ability to know where you are, acknowledge what you are going through, and identify what is within your scope of control. This way of double-thinking helped James Stockdale survive all those painful years. No matter how bad things got, James remembered that the current challenges and difficulties would pass.

Everything changes; the good times and the bad times will pass. Painful and difficult circumstances that we’re forced to face will pass, too.

Such paradoxical thinking has been one of the defining philosophies for great leaders who’ve made it through hardship and realized their life’s vision.

It is not the presence or absence of difficulty, but how a person deals with the inevitable difficulties of life.

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.”

So, how did M relate to this story and what can this story teach all of us?

  • Every event has a beginning and an end; it is the period between the beginning and the end that matters the most.
  • It is the journey and how a person will live it and experience it.
  • No matter how many challenges and struggles a person encounters, there will always be an end to that phase or cycle.
  • Things sometimes seem very important and urgent, and our minds get clouded with the feeling of urgency. Everything happens in the right time; trust the timing of your life.
  • Never lose faith at the end of the story, even if you don’t know what it is.

Viktor Frankl, an Austrian neurologist and psychiatrist and a Holocaust survivor, mentioned in his book Man’s Search for Meaning:

“Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”

Choose how you want to feel, and do not let your circumstances dictate how you should feel.

Lastly, how does a person survive a harsh journey and become great?

A person can become great by preparing for the future, having unwavering faith and by taking action.

“All great companies embraced the Stockdale Paradox. It didn’t matter how bleak the situation or how stultifying their mediocrity, they all maintained unwavering faith that they would not just survive, but prevail as a great company. And yet, at the same time, they became relentlessly disciplined at confronting the most brutal facts of their current reality.”

And that’s how M’s mindset changed. He started having faith and believing that everything that happens in his life has a purpose.

And as Steve Jobs said:

“You can’t connect the dots looking forward. You can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. You have to trust in something — your gut, destiny, life, and karma, whatever. This approach has never let me down, and it has made all the difference in my life.”

If there are circumstances in your life that are not ideal right now, remember it’s only momentarily. Have faith, everything happens in the right time.

Trust the timing of your life.

With Love,


P.s: Learn More about the “Energy leadership index Assessment

Zara is a NY Master Life Coach, Motivational speaker, the founder of Let’s Create Your World and the Creator of “Design Your Destiny” Program.