Can you be anything you want? A lesson from the Stockdale Paradox…

July 31, 2018

I cleaned out my office today and ran across a quote I wrote on an index card years ago. I was introduced to this story in the book Good to Great, by Jim Collins, one of the top business books of all time.

“Retain the faith that you will prevail in the end, regardless of the difficulties AND confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they may be.”

This is the Stockdale Paradox, is a quote from Jim Stockdale, a Vietnam POW who survived when many others didn’t.

You may not be in a physical prison, but are you in another type of prison?

Defining events

Stockdale said he never doubted he would prevail and turn this horrific experience into a defining event in his life. Despite his circumstances, he never lost faith.

Does this sound familiar? Being passed over for a promotion, not getting the job, someone saying you’re not “management material,” office politics, getting fired or laid off, being “moved” – your company getting acquired and a new leadership team – these are all difficult, defining events most people experience in their professional lives.

When a defining event happens, even if it IS your fault, it doesn’t have to *define* you. It’s human to blame yourself. Take the event and use it as fuel and inspiration – get the lesson and move on.

Sometimes what you think you want is the best thing that never happened.

How do people move through difficulties?

Some people seem to be born lucky. They have a great support system, superior intellect, attractive, financial resources. We all know that person – they seem to get all the breaks, but if you look deep, they’ve had challenges too – no one is immune.

Mental toughness, emotional intelligence, critical thinking, social intelligence, creative thinking, values alignment … all help you move through difficulties more easily. The problem is that many people were never taught these concepts or had limited/no exposure.

Confronting Reality

Stockdale says we must have the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of our current reality. Stockdale’s reality was a strong likelihood of being tortured or killed. Our reality is probably not that painful or life threatening.

Let’s break it down

Discipline: This is about order, having a plan … and taking baby steps. Many people resist discipline, but if you don’t have a plan or if you’re taking on too much, you will stall. Discipline reduces the chaos in your head.

Confrontation: It takes courage to confront yourself. This is about having an internal conversation. The dialogue goes on inside your head, saying “I want to get real, even if it hurts .… or affirms my greatness.” At some point, you need to call yourself out on your own crap if you’re not getting the best results.

Brutal facts: Start digging into the reality of YOU. Ask a few people (whom you respect and want the best for you) to validate or invalidate what you believe to be true. However, if you hear something that doesn’t ring true, ask for examples and run it by a few other people. Sometimes people project their junk onto you, so be careful. What are the common themes? What is missing?

So CAN you be anything you want? Yes and no

As a Coach and Recruiter, I have listened to many people who were advised to pursue a career because it paid well, and they are miserable. Why? Because the work didn’t play to their strengths or interests. Or, they listened to someone who had good intentions but couldn’t be objective in their advice.

I’ve also met other people who created exactly what they want because they knew who they were, overcame obstacles, asked for help, and created a plan that worked.

Have you had a defining event that changed the trajectory of your career? What did you do to get moving?