The Hanoi Hilton, where James Stockdale spent seven years under heinous conditions enduring near-constant torture, was a dark place. Death was ever present. Kindness was rare. There seemed to be no end to the misery in sight.
In fact, Stockdale would say that those who thought they saw an end in sight were the most vulnerable. Because the day they prayed for would come and go and still more pain and agony awaited them. Crushed, their will would depart them. Many of them would die.
And yet…and yet…what propelled Stockdale? Hope. Like the song lyrics go, he held onto hope, as it was the last thing holding onto him.
This, thanks to Jim Collins in his classic book, Good to Great, has become known as the Stockdale Paradox. But it might also be called the Stoic Paradox, as it is rooted in the teachings of Epictetus, which Stockdale was introduced to at Stanford before he was shot down. A Stoic can’t be naive or optimistic. They can’t fix their happiness or survival on speculation, on the idea of some day in the future whose very existence is outside our dichotomy of control. A Stoic must be realistic. They must face, unflinchingly, the reality of their situation. But—and this is the big but—they can also hold simultaneously, as Stockdale did, that if they manage to make it through, they will also turn the experience into “the defining event of [their] life, which, in retrospect, [they] would not trade.”
No one knows what the future holds. To direct our hopes and desires towards a specific outcome is to set ourselves up for disappointment. So instead, we must focus on our resilient and unfailing ability to transform whatever is in store for us into material that we can use in the rest of our lives, whatever it is. We must put ourselves in a position to turn those events into flame and brightness, as Marcus Aurelius wrote. Nothing can break our hold on that.