When life gets difficult, it’s easy to lose faith.
At the same time, sometimes when our reality is painful to acknowledge, we create a story of hope that ignores the truth.
Both are dangerous.
The first means you quit and give up.
The second means that you live in a fictional world.
In both cases, you don’t take the action that you should.
Jim Collins in Good to Great shares a story of Admiral Jim Stockdale, who was the highest-ranking US military officer in a prisoner of war camp during the Vietnam War. During his 8 year imprisonment, he was tortured over 20 times.
Collins in his interview with Admiral Stockdale asks him:
“Who didn’t make it out?” [of the prisoner of war camp]
“Oh, that’s easy,” he said. “The optimists.”
“The optimists? I don’t understand,” I said, now completely confused.
“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.”
I know I’ve been incredibly guilty of both having and advocating such an optimist mindset. I remember during my time leading myEd, an edutech start up, I’d set big ambitious goals for our team that was based on faith only, and a refusal to acknowledge the reality of our situation.
I’d kept on believing we’d somehow hit the goal in the next quarter, or the one after. Our failure to do so however completely demoralised our team.
What is the pathway then?
Admiral Stockdale shared:
“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.”
This is now known as the Stockdale Paradox.
It’s incredibly difficult to do – to sit with the brutal facts of your reality (which may inspire hopelessness and significant doubt), while simultaneously having unwavering faith that everything will work out OK.
We tend to lean towards one way or the other. I have a huge optimism bias. I know others who only see the brutal facts of their reality.
But holding these to conflicting beliefs is exactly what is required to be resilient and to prevail over whatever life throws at you.
Brene Brown in her book Dare to Lead reframes the Stockdale Paradox into a wonderfully simple motto that’s easy to remember:
Gritty Facts, Gritty Faith.
I’ve loved this because when you’re in the shit, it’s easy to just fall into your default mode – either focusing on faith only or facts only.
This simple motto has been a powerful reminder for me that I need to lean into the discomfort of my reality and sit with the pain of the problem to truly appreciate it and understand it, while also having unwavering faith I will prevail.