Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Are you an optimist?

You have probably been asked on a job application or during an interview some variation of the question "Do you consider yourself an optimist?" "Why?"

Consider this excerpt from Jim Collins' book, "Good to Great" about a conversation he had with Admiral Jim Stockdale. Stockdale survived 8 years as a POW in Vietnam and wrote a book, "In Love and War" about his ordeal and the lessons learned. He and his wife wrote alternating chapters to share each perspective. Collins read Stockdale's book to prepare for their meeting and conversation. His thoughts;

"As I moved through the book, I found myself getting depressed. It just seemed so bleak—the uncertainty of his fate, the brutality of his captors, and so forth. And then, it dawned on me: “Here I am sitting in my warm and comfortable office, looking out over the beautiful Stanford campus on a beautiful Saturday afternoon. I’m getting depressed reading this, and I know the end of the story! I know that he gets out, reunites with his family, becomes a national hero, and gets to spend the later years of his life studying philosophy on this same beautiful campus. If it feels depressing for me, how on earth did he deal with it when he was actually there and did not know the end of the story?”
“I never lost faith in the end of the story,” he said, when I asked him. “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.”
* * *
I didn’t say anything for many minutes, and we continued the slow walk toward the faculty club, Stockdale limping and arc-swinging his stiff leg that had never fully recovered from repeated torture. Finally, after about a hundred meters of silence, I asked, “Who didn’t make it out?”
“Oh, that’s easy,” he said. “The optimists.”
“The optimists? I don’t understand,” I said, now completely confused, given what he’d said a hundred meters earlier.
“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.”
Another long pause, and more walking. Then he turned to me and said, “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.”

From this conversation, Collins coined the term "Stockdale Paradox". Its meaning is the last statement above, maintaining confidence in a positive outcome eventually (maybe years) but refusing to pretend everything is currently as it should be.

Agree or disagree?


wanna said...

Totally agree!!! But, of course, we could argue to be or not to be an optimist!!! luv ya, wanna

Phoebe said...

Wow, that's good. "discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality"... Just like the braces on my teeth, I can have a positive attitude all day long about having straight teeth, but until I put the braces on and suffer through the discomfort, my teeth will be crooked! My emotional and spiritual "crookedness" won't get straight without confrontation.

bbeth said...

Thanks for sharing this Roxy. I think it is a good point for so many of us who are facing difficult circumstances. I have always said that I am a pessimistic optimist :)


bbeth said...

Hey Roxy,
It's Bonnie again. I just wanted to tell you that I linked your blog in a comment on another blog which has been dealing with addictions lately. I thought the comment by Stockdale was very beneficial to many of us.
http://johndobbs.wordpress.com/2007/06/27/the-search/ Find your link in my comment today.

Roxy Wishum said...

Thanks, Bonnie, 1) for reading 2) for commenting so I know somebody is reading 3) for the link on J.Dobbs page. I looked at that page and it looks very interesting. I did not have time today to check his previous posts, but saved the link as a favorite and will go back. Your comment on his page was concise and well-stated. Obviously, I struggle with brevity. But I comfort myself by looking at the word "parsimonious". Some "expert" thought a 5-syllable word best represented the concept of brevity.

Lerra said...


Hey - you told me this post would make me go "hmmm..."!! :-)

Supabloggasuprememama said...

This is a wonderful post that I think I needed to read just now, especially with everything going on.