No sooner had I written a blog about the mental state of languishing, I discovered the Stockdale Paradox. Admiral James Stockdale was a US pilot who was held as a prisoner of war for nearly eight years. He was shot down over North Vietnam in 1965 and ejected with broken bones before being captured. He was taken to Hanoi and held in a prisoner of war camp where he was frequently tortured. Stockdale eventually endured one of the longest periods of captivity in US history.
Stockdale was extremely resilient despite four years in isolation and two years in heavy leg irons. He was subjected to unthinkable terror and isolation. Despite this he had the psychological strength and endurance to survive. He was finally freed and went on to serve another two years as President of the USA Naval War College. Today there is a Destroyer named the USS Stockdale. Since 1980, the Vice Admiral James Stockdale Award has been bestowed for inspirational leadership in the US Navy.
Good to Great
The Stockdale Paradox was first recognised in Jim Collins’s book, ‘Good to Great’. Collins studies eleven companies who managed to outperform their market. They did this over a sustained period and Collins endeavours to understand how and why they did it. Coincidentally it was the first book I began to read after learning about the mental state of ‘languishing’: a mental state identified in the New York Times as a common condition during the Covid-19 pandemic. It was an unexpected inspiration.
Collins compares the contrast of high performance organizations who were in the same situation as their competitors. They were in the same time and place with the same resources. They had the same opportunities but somehow they managed to thrive while others collapsed. Collins concludes that greatness, does not primarily come from circumstance (although a time of crisis can be a catalyst for change). Instead he concludes that greatness comes from conscious choice and from discipline.
The Stockdale Paradox was key to the success of the companies who thrived. On further investigation, I found Stockdale received a copy of Epictetus’ “Enchiridion” three years before he was shot down. It is a handbook compiled of ethical advice from the Greek Stoic philosopher. It taught Stockdale that no matter where he was, high or low, the freedom of choice in his own mind could be upheld. He learnt to live without fear or hope as they were worthless concerns for future events.
Stockdale recognised the courage to ‘embrace your current situation and embrace the facts, no matter how hard’ are the foundation of resistance and dedication. Stockdale never doubted he would one day be free but was not an optimist (as they become disappointed and die of a broken heart). Stoically, he knew he would prevail and turn the situation in to the defining moment of his life. Collins coined this robust psychology as the Stockdale Paradox.
A Languishing Panacea
Having unwavering faith that you will prevail regardless of the difficulties faced is one of the key attributes of the companies who went from good to great. Collins also says that you must be able to confront your current reality if you are to survive, just like the Stockdale Paradox. With this insight, it is totally relevant to the uncertainty of the Covid-19 pandemic and the unprecedented time we are living through. Who knows, for some, it may even be a panacea for the state of Languishing and the survival psychology required to overcome the current situation.