I have been a successful ultra-endurance competitor for most of my life. My athletic success has been an important part of my identity and sense of self.
Almost 10 years ago, I suffered from a partial tear of my left patellar tendon. Ever since, my physical well-being has at times been severely compromised. There were certainly pain-free periods during which I was able to push myself hard again; however, for a lot of that time I had to deal with joint troubles and be happy just to walk more or less pain-free, let alone compete in 12-, 24-, 36-, or 72-hour races.
It goes without saying that this has been very challenging for me. I used to manage my energy level and well-being by working out at least once (often twice) daily. I met many of my best friends through my athletic endeavors. I was known as “that crazy sports guy” (and no, I did not mind that, I admit).
For the first year and a half or so after my initial injury, I would try and set myself time goals for getting better. I remember, for example, in the late summer of 2009 mapping out the fall with therapy and treatments and planning to get back on the bike by December 1st.
It was not meant to be. Despite all my efforts, I actually got worse that fall. I would do the same again in May of 2010 and plan for a re-entry into the athletic world by November of 2010. This time, at least I didn’t go backwards, but again I did not get better. I went through similar cycles a few more times over the last 10 years.
I am learning a lot of lessons from this ongoing experience. One of them is having what Jim Collins calls the “Stockdale Paradox” come alive for me.
The Stockdale Paradox: Great companies (and people) must retain faith that they will prevail in the end regardless of difficulties, but at the same time, they must confront the most brutal facts of their current reality, whatever they might be.
Or for me personally: Retaining faith that eventually I will be able to be competitively active again, while confronting the brutal fact that there is no way of knowing or planning when it might be possible. Maybe next month, maybe next year, maybe in five years or more .…
The Stockdale Paradox is named after Vice Admiral Stockdale,who was the highest ranking US military official in the “Hanoi Hilton” Prisoner of War (POW) camp in Vietnam. He was tortured more than twenty times during his eight years of imprisonment.
He lived without POW rights, a set release date, nor any certainty as to whether he would ever see his family again. He did everything he could to support other inmates while fighting his captors. At one point, he deliberately beat himself with a stool and cut himself with a razor so that he could not be put on video tape as an example of a “well-treated prisoner.” He invented a communication system of taps to help comrades dealing with the isolation. During an imposed silence, the prisoners mopping the floor used his code to swish-swash out “we love you” to Stockdale on the third anniversary of him being shot down.
Asked by author Jim Collins how he dealt with the seemingly hopeless situation, he replied: “I never lost faith in the end of the story. I never doubted not only that I would get out, but that I would prevail in the end.”
Asked about who did not make it out, he says:
“Oh, that is easy. The optimists. They were the ones who said, ‘We are 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 would die of a broken heart.”
Stockdale goes on: “This is a very important lesson. You must never confuse faith that you will prevail in the end – which you cannot afford to lose – with the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be.”
As you ponder the Stockdale Paradox, ask yourself for your business:
How disciplined are you and your staff at relentlessly confronting the most brutal facts of your current business reality?
If you are doubtful, consider the following questions:
- Name three things you have been avoiding in your business. What can you do todayto bring these issues out into the open?
- Which parts of your current reality – parts outof your control– are you refusing to accept? How are you holding on to the past?
- What “red-flag mechanisms” can you put in place to make sure you are confronting reality?
And for me personally: As difficult as my situation is at times, answering the above three questions honestly on a regular basis helps me to confront the brutal facts of my current reality while not losing faith that I will prevail in the long run!