What We Can Learn (about overcoming difficult situations) from The Stockdale Paradox…

Woman feeling strong with fists pumped for Stockdale Paradox

When I began writing my Fierce Kindness newsletter in February last year, I thought the pandemic would be over by summer – like our normal cold and flu season. Then, perhaps the fall. OK, well, at least it’ll be over by Christmas. Nope, nope and nope. And here we are, almost a year later.

As the COVID pandemic not only continues, but the virus reaches new heights and begins to mutate, if you’re anything like me you’re asking, “When does this end?”

So. The Stockdale Paradox. Perhaps I will just launch in:

Jim Stockdale’s Story

During the war in Vietnam, United States Navy officer Jim Stockdale was the highest ranked prisoner in the infamous Hỏa Lò Prison, a Hanoi prisoner-of-war camp. He was imprisoned for 7 1/2 years from 1965 to 1973 and was routinely tortured and beaten. There are more details on Wikipedia here.

However, Stockdale did not give up – or give in. Instead he organized a resistance inside the prison – specifically creating conditions that helped other prisoners survive. These included developing a secret communications system involving taps to reduce isolation; agreeing a step-by-step system for when people were under torture which allowed them to “give specific information away” after x number of minutes; he sent letters to his wife with secret intelligence in them – and more.

So, what does Jim Stockdale have to do with the COVID pandemic?

Well, I first read about Vice Admiral Stockdale (he was promoted to vice admiral by the time he retired) in Jim Collins’ business book From Good to Great. One of the questions Jim Collins asked Stockdale was who didn’t make it out of the prison camps alive? Stockdale said:

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. 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.

So, the optimists were the ones who didn’t make it out!

BUT. Surely we need optimism and belief TO survive?

And if not, what does work? What will help us get through this seemingly never-ending pandemic? Well, try this:

The Stockdale Paradox

Coming from ancient Stoic philosophy, “The Stockdale Paradox” is what Jim Collins called Stockdale’s seemingly paradoxical approach to survival. Stockdale found a way to:

  • Retain the faith that he would prevail (eventually), regardless of the difficulties.


  • Confront reality – the deepest and most brutal truths – whatever they might be.

In COVID terms this becomes:

  • We must hold onto our optimism and believe we will triumph over this pandemic – irrespective of how difficult it is in the meantime.


  • Face up to the most brutal and challenging truths of this situationwhatever they might happen to be.

So we must combine facing the realities of the situation WITH optimism. And that’s the ‘paradox’: both optimism and realism at once!

What COVID truths do we need to face?

Well, we must face the truth that there is no “end date” yet; that it might get worse before it gets better; that we’re stuck inside at home, not able to meet and hug friends until who knows when. We might lose people we know and love; we might get COVID ourselves; we must continue wearing masks indoors (and sometimes outdoors too); we can’t do many (most?) of the things we want to; many people are losing their jobs and livelihoods; our governments are going into debt; and some people are behaving badly.

All this is true, and more. AND. We must remain optimistic ANYWAY. We must believe we will win out.

It’s been a tough year for everyone

2020 – and now stretching into 2021 – has also been an incredibly turbulent time around the world. Major societal issues have been brought home to us: electoral issues in the United States, Brexit in the UK, #BlackLivesMatter and ongoing social justice issues, continuing #MeToo stories, wildfires and other environmental issues, refugee crises, corporate abuses and more. It can feel heavy.

BUT we must stay hopeful!

We must confront these brutal realities while retaining optimism. Only then can we make a difference. A positive mindset which sees reality – yet retains hope – is what motivates us to turn our learnings and disappointments into concrete, meaningful action. Even if we start as small as making an extra effort to be kinder to everyone around us – and more courageous in our actions.

One final layer

During his interview with Jim Collins, Stockdale went one step further and also said:

“I never doubted not only that I would get out, but 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.”

We can turn our experiences of 2020 into a defining event – and turning point – in our lives.

What will you do with this crazy, difficult time?


10 Fiercely Kind Lessons from Jim Stockdale, and Beyond…

Just as Viktor Frankl discovered in the German internment camps in World War II, it’s not life’s challenges and difficulties that kill you, it’s how we respond to them.

Here are 10 helpful lessons we can glean from The Stockdale Paradox plus Fierce Kindness:

  1. Find your own unique way to be “of service” to others and if you’re already doing this, acknowledge and appreciate yourself! I believe part of Stockdale’s survival and internal fire came from the meaning he found in helping others. Examples can be as small as being extra appreciative of your grocery clerk and smiling (right through to those eyes above your mask!), organizing a Zoom for someone who is lonely or donating to your local food bank.
  2. Share positive and uplifting stories that you hear during this time. For example, on the news this week (Jan 6, 2021) as riot police cleared the steps of the mob on Capitol Hill, I saw an officer in full riot gear gently holding hands with a woman protester supporting her down to the bottom of the steps. Of course the news was focusing on the violence, and here was one example of humanity.
  3. Share “The Stockdale Paradox” and Jim Stockdale’s story with those who might find it helpful.
  4. “AND” your complaints! When you need to complain or acknowledge a difficulty, simply add an AND after your complaint and ALSO say something positive or hopeful. For example, I’m so tired of not seeing my friends in person, AND I’m going to practice – and perfect – new recipes that I can use for dinner parties when this is over (in my case I’m learning to make cocktails!).
  5. Be kind to, and take care of, yourself. Self-care will keep you strong.
  6. Be kind to others – we never know how stressed or scared someone else is, or what they’re going through.
  7. Focus on your strengths AND gently acknowledge your shortcomings during this time. Find ways you can use your strengths, and remember that acknowledging your shortcomings allows you to take better care of yourself finding different ways to do things, or being gentle with yourself.
  8. Face – and accept – the uncertainty of it all. Let go of trying to control outcomes: resisting what already is will only cause us more suffering!
  9. This will be a defining event for almost everyone on the planet. BUT. Each of us will have our own unique experience and learnings from this time. If you find yourself stuck in negativity, try imagining and focusing on: “What opportunities could ‘come out’ of this time – for you and the planet?” (* see Bonus Journaling Exercise below)
  10. And last but not least, keep your faith in “the end of the story” and remember we are all in this together!

Fierce Kindness LogoI’ll leave you with these 3 questions to ponder

Here are some questions to go deeper and personalise the learning. Use your journal to write your answers or reflect over a coffee or on a walk:

  1. What do you find hardest or struggle with most during this time? What do you still need to face up to? What are your “most brutal” facts?
  2. What have you learned about yourself during this time – both positive and negative? Acknowledging your strengths and wonderful qualities as well as your flaws helps you be whole and authentic. IMPORTANT: Be kind to yourself around your “failings”: we all have them and it’s part of what makes us human. So no judgement!
  3. How could you – and how will you – make this experience a defining event in your life? How will you be stronger once this is all over?
Change the world, start with you!

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* Bonus Journaling Exercise

Make a list of 10-12 opportunities that have – or could – come from the COVID crisis.

Think big and small, personal and societal. Each item should start with “I/We have the opportunity to”:

Here are a few examples from my list:

  • We have an opportunity to learn who we truly are, and find our inner strength.
  • We have an opportunity to discover our deepest values, what matters most – and begin to build our life around that.
  • I have the opportunity to be “of service” to others, to grow and get more comfortable putting my ideas forward.
  • We have an opportunity to think of new ways that this society can operate and support those most in need.
  • I have the opportunity to try new things, and learn and experiment with new ways of living my life.
  • Our planet and natural world has an opportunity to recover.

Image of Strong Person embracing Stockdale Paradox by WAYHOME studio via Shutterstock


  1. Julia

    Just discovered your site. Love that it has so many helpful articles and suggestions for learning and growing. Links lead to more and better suggestions. I can tell you have put much thought and consideration into this. Good work!

    • Emma-Louise Elsey

      Dear Julia!
      Thank-you so much for your kind words – and for taking the time to comment 🙂 My goal is always to help people learn and grow, with accessible tips and tools. Your comment made my day!
      Em x


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