I have been a pretty successful athlete for most of my life. Almost two and a half years ago, I suffered from a partial tear of my left patella tendon. Ever since, my physical well being has been severely compromised. Things have been going from bad to worse and these days I am dealing with several joint troubles and I am happy if I can walk more or less pain free, let alone compete in 12,24, 36, or 72 hour races.
It goes without saying that this has been very challenging for me. I used to manage my energy level and well-being by working out at least once (often twice) daily. I met many of my best friends through my athletic endeavors. A lot of my-self worth and identity was wrapped up in my athletic success. I was known as ‘that crazy sports guy’ (and yes, I did not mind that I admit).
For the first year and a half or so after my initial injury, I would try and set my-self goals on when I would get better. I remember, for example, in the late summer of 2009 mapping out the fall with therapy and treatments and planning to get back on the bike by December 1st. It was not meant to be. Despite of all my efforts, I actually got worse that fall. I would do the same again in May of 2010 and plan for a re-entry into the athletic world by November of 2010. Again, while at least not going backwards, I did not get better.
I am learning a lot of lessons from this ongoing experience (and will probably write some more about it later). One of them is having what Jim Collins calls the ‘Stockdale Paradox’ coming alive for me.
Let me explain.
The Stockdale Paradox: Great companies (and people) retain faith that they will prevail in the end regardless of the difficulties and at the same time, confront the most brutal facts of their current reality, whatever they might be.
Or for me personally: Retaining faith that eventually I will be able to be physically active again, while confronting the brutal fact that there is no way of knowing or planning when this will be the case again. Maybe next month, maybe next year, maybe in five plus years…
The Stockdale paradox is named after Vice Admiral Stockdale who was the highest ranking US military official in the ‘Hanoi Hilton’ Prisoner of War (POW) camp in Vietnam. He was tortured more than twenty times during his eight years of imprisonment.
He lived without POW rights, a set release date, nor any certainty as to whether he would ever see his family again. He did everything he could to support other inmates while fighting his captors. At one point, he deliberately beat himself with a stool and cut himself with a razor so that he could not be put on video tape as an example of a “well treated prisoner.” He invented a communication system of taps to help comrades dealing with the isolation. During an imposed silence, the prisoners mopping the floor swept the yard used the code to swish-swash out ‘we love you’ to Stockdale on his third anniversary of being shot down.
Asked by the author Jim Collins on how he dealt with the seemingly hopeless situation, he replied: “I never lost faith in the end of the story. I never doubted not only that I would get out, but that I would prevail in the end.”
Asked about who did not make it out he says:
“Oh, that is easy. The optimists. They were the ones who said, ‘we are 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 would die of a broken heart.”
Stockdale goes on saying: “This is a very important lesson. You must never confuse faith that you will prevail in the end – which you can not afford to lose – with the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be.”
As you ponder the Stockdale paradox, ask yourself for your business:
How disciplined are you and your staff at relentlessly confronting the most brutal facts of your current business reality?
If you are doubtful, consider the following questions:
- Name three things you have been avoiding in your business. What can you do TODAY to bring these issues out into the open?
- Which part of your current reality which are out of your control are you refusing to accept? Where are you holding on to the past?
- What ‘red flag mechanisms’ (e.g. regular review of your financials) can you put in place to make sure you are confronting reality?
For more information about Vice Admiral Stockdale and his story, visit here.