Wednesday, December 30, 2009

The Stockdale Paradox, or Why Julie Is Happier This Holiday Season

Every summer at E.L. Haynes (the school where I work), we have two weeks of staff professional development. Sometime over the course of those two weeks, one of my fantastic colleagues presents the staff with some interesting or inspiring quotes and asks that we "think, pair and share" about what those quotes mean. After reading Jim Collins' book Good to Great, The Stockdale Paradox became one of those quotes for discussion.

Vice Admiral James Stockdale was a highly-decorated officer in the U.S. Navy, who served during the Vietnam War. In 1965, he was captured and held as a prisoner of war, beaten and tortured for 8 long years. The fact that he survived is not just exemplary of his strength of character, but also of his mindset, for which the Stockdale Paradox is named.

You see, as Stockdale says in conversations with Collins, "I never lost faith in the end of the story. 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 moment of my life, which, in retrospect, I would not trade." Pretty ballsy stuff, eh? More than that, when asked about the many other Americans held captive in the same prison who did not make it out, Stockdale said, "Oh, that's easy -- the optimists. 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 important lesson shows us that we need to continue to have faith that we will prevail while confronting the brutal facts of reality. It's this duality that Collins coined the Stockdale Paradox.

So what the heck does this have to do with anything in my life, and more importantly, why I'm having a much better holiday season this year? Easy. Because I have been that optimist -- every year, I'd think, "I'll have a baby by Christmas." And Christmas would come and go. And then I'd think, "I'll have a baby by my birthday." And my birthday would come and go.

I had to confront some pretty brutal facts of my own reality -- namely that no matter how many birthdays or Christmases came and went, it was unlikely that I would ever carry a baby to term. And, maybe hardest of all, that despite so many tests, we might never know why. So we moved onto adoption and I once again have faith that we will prevail, while confronting new challenges in the reality of what it means to be an adoptive family. Not brutal, certainly, but challenges to my assumptions and views of the world.

And, harkening back to Stockdale's first observation, I have no doubt that what we've been through was and will always be a defining moment in my life.


  1. Just beautiful. Thanks for sharing!

  2. I should be able to write this well! Well said honey.

  3. What a beautiful post Julie. The path may be different than you expected but the destination will still be just as wonderful when you get there.

  4. Yes, it's a hard unpredictable road but there is an end, one just doesn't necessarily know exactly when. We did international adoption -which is supposed to have "timelines" and yet it threw us for a loop too. It's hard not to make certain plans and to think when things will happen but it's also nice to know that it will. It just does and when it happens all the worries, the frustration, and the sorrows will fade into a distant memory. I didn't think I would rebound from our dossier being delayed while everyone else in our group went on ahead and got their referrals, and I shut down. But then out of nowhere (even our agency didn't get prior notice like they usually do) we got placed a little over a month after everyone else. And well, the rest is history.