The Stockdale Paradox and How to Mentally Survive the COVID-19 Pandemic

by | Apr 20, 2020

James Stockdale

James Stockdale – Captive and Hero

Vice Admiral James Bond Stockdale was a former Vice Presidental candidate (running mate of Ross Perot), academic, and a naval pilot during the Vietnam War. He was captured by the Viet Cong in 1965 when his A-4 fighter bomber was shot down and was held captive in the Hỏa Lò Prison (known as the “Hanoi Hilton”) for seven-and-a-half years.

He was tortured many times during his nearly 8 years in captivity including having his leg broken at least twice. Once, when he found out that he was going to be filmed by his captors and displayed as a well-treated prisoner he disfigured himself with a razor so that he couldn’t be used in their propaganda. He was the highest-ranked U.S. officer at the Hanoi Hilton and thus the leader of all the prisoners there. The discipline and resistance he brought to the prison helped his fellow Americans endure the horrors of captivity. “Stockdale spent two years in heavy leg irons and four years in isolation, but he didn’t waver. He led the POWs’ culture of defiance, finding ways to communicate and govern prisoner behavior that gave them all hope.” Source. He describes his mission where he was shot down and captured here.

There is a lot more that can be said about Admiral Stockdale and his leadership and fortitude during captivity, but it can be summarized that he was a total badass. How Stockdale had the mental fortitude to keep going in the face of torture and uncertainty can be a lesson for dealing with the current pandemic crisis.

The Stockdale Paradox

Jim Collins, in his best-selling book Good to Great, relates what Stockdale viewed as the mental attitude needed to survive a challenging situation. His advice was in response to Collins’s question about what sort of POW didn’t survive the Hanoi Hilton:

“Oh, that’s easy,” he said. “The optimists.”

“The optimists? I don’t understand,” I said, now completely confused.

“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. 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.

This concept, that you must never give up, yet you should confront the brutal facts of your situation, is known as The Stockdale Paradox.


This is great advice on how to mentally survive or even thrive in a challenging situation. But it can be a tough balance to achieve. It requires you to not be too optimistic, but to have a resilient attitude. You must acknowledge how much your situation sucks, but not let the situation break your will.

This advice is applicable to the COVID-19 pandemic. We should adopt the attitude that we will get through this pandemic. We will prevail. But, we also need to be realistic about our situation. Thinking that everything will go back to normal in a matter of weeks or months is not productive thinking. We’ve stepped through a door into a new normal. The Stockdale Paradox teaches that we should adopt an attitude of resolve while simultaneously boldly accepting and acknowledging the facts of our situation, even though they are tough facts.

An important mental model that is similar to the Stockdale Paradox is the There are Only Four Ways to Handle a Problem concept. The four ways to approach a problem are: (1) solve it, (2) change your attitude so it’s no longer a problem, (3) radical acceptance, and (4) be miserable. The COVID-19 pandemic calls for radical acceptance, which “is about accepting life on life’s terms and not resisting what you cannot or choose not to change. Radical acceptance is about saying yes to life, just as it is.” Source.


  1. Awesome John. The balance is so important. Having a Pollyanna attitude certainly doesn’t work for me. Radical acceptance and then faith that everything is happening for a reason.

  2. Perfect advice for these strange days.

  3. Thanks John!


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