Many businesses have succumbed to pandemic-related shutdowns. By using the Stockdale Paradox, yours doesn’t have to be one of them.
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December 31, 2020 5 min read
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I remember the first time I came across the Stockdale Paradox. Covid had just forced our offices to completely shut down. Blame the absence of a commute, or the fact that a large percentage of our clients had fled or gotten fired themselves, but I was finding myself with a lot more time on my hands. I paged through Jim Collins’ book Good to Great, and there it was, in all of its splendor, the only lesson I would need to get my business past a world pandemic. Little did I know that was just the tip of the iceberg, I would also need to get past a social awakening in our country, past a fraught election and past a million other things that threatened my agency’s survival.
Admiral Jim Stockdale, the highest-ranking military official in the Hanoi Hilton, was a prisoner of war for seven years. After being asked by the book’s author what set him apart from his prisoner-of-war peers who didn’t survive the severe torture and decrepit living conditions, he had this to say: “Despite all those circumstances, I never ever wavered in my absolute faith that not only would I prevail — get out of this — but I would also prevail by turning it into the defining event of my life that would make me a stronger and better person.”
Stockdale’s quote touched a chord at the beginning of the pandemic and continued to float into my consciousness after a plethora of other global and national events. As the year ends, it continues to have more significance than ever before. As 2020 progressed, our country grappled with tough issues like race and politics. Every entrepreneur was bombarded with conflicting messages during this trying year: “Reach out to potential clients; they want to hear from you.” “Don’t reach out to sell your services; it’s in bad taste during trying times.” “Make connections online in lieu of in-person events.” “There is Zoom fatigue and you will hard-pressed to nail a good meeting.”
During the thick of these events, we didn’t know which way was left. It was also hard to implement a forward-looking strategy that could adapt to the fast-changing landscape. Enter the Stockdale Paradox.
This easy-to-reference lesson holds one global truth that can be reframed as an action-step for success during trying times: When things seem impossible, never doubt that you will triumph. “You must never, ever, ever confuse, on the one hand, the need for absolute, unwavering faith that you can prevail despite those constraints with, on the other hand, the need for the discipline to begin by confronting the brutal facts, whatever they are,” as Stockdale eloquently relayed to Collins.
To put the Stockdale Paradox into action for your particular business, grab your favorite writing utensils. Allot no less than 30 minutes for this exercise. At the top of your page, assert what your situation will look like when you prevail. Remember, the key here is to have unwavering faith that you will triumph. Try to be as concise as possible, but don’t linger on the details, a short paragraph will suffice.
After you’ve asserted the position you want to find yourself in after the chaos, draw columns below that statement. The column headers should list the brutal facts about your current situation. Don’t soften the picture. The more candid your column titles, the more likely you are to create action steps that clearly map a way forward. After you’ve dumped all the negatives at the top of those columns, create short and simple bullet points that help chip away at solving each issue.
I’m not asking you to figure out a formula for solving your biggest headache, but simply include bullets that will help you get one foot in front of the other. For instance, if wayward finances are a concern, don’t jot down how you will solve the full conundrum. Instead, include a few bullets on resources that can help further educate yourself financially. You may also want to include bullets that list who in your network has skills that can help you in that area. You may want to make a bullet that asks you to call an old friend who now works in finance or an uncle who is a retired CFO. As you go about your day, try to cross off as many bullets as possible. Don’t stress about getting to it all in 24 hours; take your time.
After a week of putting one foot in front of the other and crossing off each small bullet, repeat the same exercise from square one. Don’t rush when rewriting your assertion at the top of your new page for the week. You need to see it, write it, repeat it and ultimately believe it to come true. The exercise of confronting the brutal facts but keeping a positive outlook within that frame of reality will go a long way. Many businesses have died at the hands of 2020, and many more will continue to do so as the year progresses. You don’t have to be one of them. The Stockdale Paradox will get you to the other side, but only if like Admiral Jim Stockdale, your conviction is steadfast.