Snapshots of a Startup: The Stockdale Paradox


“There is no worse mistake in public leadership than to hold out false hopes soon to be swept away.”  – Winston Churchill

I’m continuing on in the series “Snapshots of a Startup” where I’m sharing some lessons from experiences that I’m going through, lessons I’ve learned and insights I’ve gained while in the process of devloping my 1st major startup venture.

The Stockdale Paradox…sound familiar?  Maybe…maybe not.  Well, I’m borrowing a page from Jim Collins’s book Good to Great as it directly applies to a key insight that I’ve learned from being involved in a startup.

Stockdale…Admiral Jim Stockdale…he was the highest ranking US military officer in the “Hanoi Hilton” prisoner-of-war camp during the peak of the Vietnam War.  He was restrained for not 1, not 3, not even 5…but 8 years as a POW.  In addition, he was tortured over 20 times during that period without being given any prisoner’s rights, release dates or anything for that matter that might have given him an ounce of hope of which to cling to.  How is this applying to a startup?  Am I just referring to overcoming struggles, maintaining perseverance or a will to succeed?  While those are all good things…the answer is NO…I’m getting to the point that Jim makes in his book.

When blessed to have a conversation with the Admiral, John asked him who the people were that didn’t survive the prison camp.  To Jim’s astoundment, the Admiral decisively answered, “Oh, that’s easy.  The optimists.”  From here I will quote an exerpt from the book:

“The optimists?  I don’t understand,” I said, how completely confused, given what he’d said a hundred meters earlier.”

“The optimists.  Oh,m 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.”

Another long pause, some more walking.  Then he turned to me and said, “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 brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they may be.”

Jim goes on to later say:

We will all experience disappointments and crushing events somewhere along the way, setbacks for which there is no “reason,” no one to blame.  What separates people, Stockdale taught me, is not the presence or absence of difficulty, but how they deal with the inevitable difficulties of life.

See in a startup, things rarely turn out the way that they’ve been planned (I’m not saying that you don’t reach your goals…I’m saying that you often experience a different way to get there from that of which you originally plan).  Example, it can be tough juggle a task when you’re managing multiple minds.  Investors, advisers, team members and even co-founders…each play a role in the situation.  Delayed time tables, diverging expectations and “catch 22” type of scenarios happen all too frequently. 

“Why?” you may ask…simply put…it’s called LIFE.  So while I’ve learned to maintain an unwavering faith in the vision…I’ve also learned to “confront the brutal facts” of a situation and make the necessary adjustments and adapt accordingly.

By nature, startups WILL (not maybe) go through a lot of twists and turns.  All of the sound research, projections and assumptions in the world won’t devoid you of facing challenges that weren’t expected.  Prepare yourself ahead of time to “expect the unexpected.”  It’s not trying to prepare so as to avoid certain obstacles if they come up but rather it’s what’s you decide to do when they come up.

Remember, life isn’t linear…you just can’t make a couple base decisions and expect all of your ducks to fall into a neat and orderly row for the next 12 to 24 months.  By all means, prepare as much as possible…even expect and believe for those things to occur, BUT when they don’t…don’t let yourself get flustered by the situation.  Instead, rise to the occasion and use it to find a better outcome than the one you had 1st planned upon. 

But if you don’t, you may find yourself on the path “most” traveled.  The one laden with scores of the many who came before you, who despite their tremendous amount of credence, fell victim by failing to confront the brutal facts.

By Micah Davis

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6 Responses

  1. This is a brilliant post. I knew the paradox but I never thought about it in a business perspective.

    I know how to start my next internal presentation 🙂

  2. I love it. Great work. It is a definate must to understand this principle. Belief in an end and not a mean.

  3. You hit the nail on the head…confront the brutal facts, although it may not necessarily be pretty, its vital in seeing a different route in your journey.

  4. Good stuff Micah. This reminds me of the verse in Proverbs 19:21 “Many are the plans in a man’s heart, but it is the LORD’s purpose that prevails.”

  5. Great post. Entrepreneurs are often required to put together 1, 2, 3 year business plans. But you have to build in some flexibility into these plans and provide some framework with metrics to help guide decisions on a much smaller time scale.

    The other lesson here is psychological. Startups force you to move fast, but it often takes significant time for results to materialize. You have to think big picture or you will burn out.

  6. General Pattern…thanks for your comment. I didn’t realize the true application either when it came to the business world. It took a close personal contact of mine to provide the insight.

    Chris…you couldn’t have said it better…”an end and not a means.” Well said!

    Ethan…echoing off of what you wrote…it’s never easy but vital nonetheless.

    Kyle…I appreciate you sharing the verse…it helps put these types of matters in the right perspective.

    Isaac…yes, flexibility is a major key! Change DOES happen…those that embrace it will be better positioned for success. I’m in the process of learning this right now…it can be easy to get bogged down in the “logistics” of birthing a startup. A lack of “tangible” progress can become frustrating at times, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that progress isn’t being made. A focus on the “big picture” keeps one’s work in context. (Uh oh…this could be a potential future post!)

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