Learning Stoicism from Stockdale

Learning Stoicism from StockdaleJames Bond Stockdale (December 23, 1923 – July 5, 2005) was an American and United States Navy vice admiral. He was awarded the Medal of Honor in the Vietnam War where he was a prisoner of war for over seven years. During this time he credited Stoic philosophy with helping him cope.

Read on to find out his secrets.

Stockdale’s Focus

Formal portrait of Rear Adm. James Stockdale i...

Formal portrait of Rear Adm. James Stockdale in full dress white uniform (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Stockdale’s primary focus was ancient stoicism and the Roman slave-turned-philosopher Epictetus, whose lessons were captured in The Enchiridion. Stockdale credited this with providing him strength during his ordeals as a prisoner in the Hanoi Hilton.

In a business book by James C. Collins called Good to Great, Collins writes about a conversation he had with Stockdale regarding his coping strategy during his period in the Vietnamese POW camp.

I never lost faith in the end of the story, I never doubted not only that I would get out, but also 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.

When Collins asked who didn’t make it out of Vietnam, Stockdale replied:

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.

Stockdale then added:

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.

Witnessing this philosophy of duality, Collins went on to describe it as the Stockdale Paradox.

Simply put:

The Stockdale Paradox really defines the optimism that is most important in becoming a resilient person and that is, when you’re faced with a challenge or a trauma, you look at that challenge objectively. You might make the assessment, ‘I’m in really big trouble.’ You have a realistic assessment of what you’re facing. On the other hand, you have the attitude and the confidence to say, ‘But I will prevail. I’m in a tough spot, but I will prevail.’ That is the optimism that relates to resilience.

Videos and Further Reading

Watch Stockdale talk about what is means to be a hero, below:

And read his thoughts on how Stoicism helped him in the following documents:

Courage Under Fire: Testing Epictetus’s Doctrines in a Laboratory of Human Behavior

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Stockdale on Stoicism I: The Stoic Warrior’s Triad

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Stockdale on Stoicism II: Master of My Fate

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