When optimism fails …

For a long while, I battled with the concept I hope to share with you in this post. It was one of those concepts that everyone I met claimed to have an explanation for. All they did was to confuse me more. I like to call myself a student of the University of Hard knocks, and this curiosity sometimes gets the better of me. Well, let me go straight to the issue …

While trying to develop strategies to grow my business, I decided to loan a book from a friend. it’s a book I have always heard about but never had the chance to read. Its called Good to Great (why some companies make the leap and others don’t) written by bestselling author of Built to last Jim Collins. Of course, it was a deep and interesting read, I devoured the pages with excitement and then BAM!!! I stumbled on a concept that has literally changed the way I think about growth, hope, goals and dreams. Its called the Stockdale paradox.

For the sake of accuracy in narration, I would like to ‘paste’ exactly what was in the book. The Stockdale paradox (nomenclature by Jim Collins) was named after Admiral Jim Stockdale who was the highest ranking United States military officer in the ‘Hanoi Hilton’  prisoner-of-war camp during the Vietnam war. He was tortured over 20 times between 1965 and 1973. He lived without no set release date and no certainty whether he would come out alive. He worked on his circle of influence, making sure he increased the number of people that survived unbroken. The captors made attempts to use the prisoners for propaganda. They wanted to portray an image of a prison that treated ,its prisoners well. To this, Stockdale beat himself up to disfigure himself so that the video taping of a well-treated prisoner wasn’t possible. He devised a formula that helped everyone survive torture. WOW, you would say. But this is what intrigued me (as I said I will put it exactly as I found it in the book):
In the words of Jim Collins, ….

I didn’t say anything for many minutes, and we continued the slow walk towards the faculty club, Stockdale limping and arc-swinging his left leg that had never fully recovered from the 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 had said a few 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 are 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.”
To this day, I carry a mental image of Stockdale admonishing the optimists: “We’re not getting out by Christmas; deal with it!”

That was it. When optimism fails. I thought about it and I could point to different instances where I had erred in this line. I am an optimist ( a die-hard one for that matter) ,but over time, I have learnt to dilute my excited optimism with a little bit of realism. I know if you belong to the New-School field of thought – highly motivated, explosive, new-creation-reality, dream big – you are probably thinking of me now as an Old-school pessimist. No, not at all. You see, I also am like that, I preach it, I set goals… I believe in the virtue that says never lose your child-like dreaming to your current circumstances. But get the balance: Retain faith that you will prevail in the end, but also confront the most brutal facts of your current realities. Confronting these facts help you in taking more accurate action steps towards you goals.

One area in which this concept must be applied, I believe, is in the area of finances. Many times, as an entrepreneur or salary earner, we tend to focus on the big picture and by so doing neglect the ability to deal with current money challenges. We overspend, invest unwisely, resolve to careless spending etc. It plays out in other issues also; in chasing a dream, vision, how hard do you work towards it? How deeply do you think of your next move? Do you have intellectual integrity and do you believe in the dignity of labour?

No matter how brilliant and gorgeous where we are going is, we cannot afford to be ‘optimistic’ and then get oblivious of the present realities. This I believe is the maturity that comes with goal setting. Let us never forget the Stockdale paradox.


2 Responses to When optimism fails …

  1. Rita says:

    Especially in business, we need to be realistic. Your post is so on point. How are you doing?

    • gbemiakande says:

      Thanks Ma, I am doing very good. Good to hear from you. Thanks for eroinspirations.com, a real standard for me in blogging. Hope its not too late to say Happy New Year.

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