Battlestar Galactica

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Jacob Clifton: A+ | 2 USERS: A
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The Stockdale Paradox

Vice Admiral James Bond Stockdale died in 2005. He served on the Ticonderoga in the Gulf of Tonkin, and was shot down over Viet Nam in 1965. He was the highest-ranking naval officer to be held as a POW, and was Ross Perot's VP candidate in 1992. Interesting guy. Afraid they'd videotape him and show the world a well-treated and valued prisoner, he beat himself with a stool. He cut himself with a razor; he did what had to be done. He limped for the rest of his life.

In the camp, he invented new ways for his men to resist torture, sent coded messages to his wife, invented new ways to break through isolation and communicate with each other. New ways to stay alive. The men cleaning the courtyard, during a period of enforced silence, swept the ground in the syncopated rhythm he'd taught them, silently and defiantly spelling out to him inside the walls: "We love you. We love you. We love you."

James C. Collins is a business management writer who's written several management books, including Built To Last and Good To Great. (I'm indebted to forum poster GaryV for bringing him up, because it's so perfectly appropriate, and better stated than anything any of us could say, because Stockdale accomplished something impossible, and lived to tell us how.) Prepping to interview him, Collins read the Vice Admiral's own record of his time at the Hanoi Hilton:

As I moved through the book, I found myself getting depressed. It just seemed so bleak -- the uncertainty of his fate, the brutality of his captors, and so forth. And then, it dawned on me: "Here I am sitting in my warm and comfortable office, looking out over the beautiful Stanford campus on a beautiful Saturday afternoon. I'm getting depressed reading this, and I know the end of the story! I know that he gets out, reunites with his family, becomes a national hero, and gets to spend the later years of his life studying philosophy on this same beautiful campus. If it feels depressing for me, how on earth did he deal with it when he was actually there and did not know the end of the story?"

"I never lost faith in the end of the story," was Stockdale's answer. "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 event of my life, which, in retrospect, I would not trade."

Collins asked him, "Who didn't make it out?" and Stockdale replied immediately: "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."

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Battlestar Galactica

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