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Stockdale Paradox: Why confronting reality is vital to success
Balancing realism and optimism in a dire situation is a key to success.
- The Stockdale Paradox is a concept that was popularized by Jim Collins in his book Good to Great.
- It was named after James Stockdale, former vice presidential candidate, naval officer and Vietnam prisoner of war.
- The main gist of the idea is that you need to balance realism with optimism.
In paradox we often find some of the greatest bits of wisdom. The difficulty in understanding a paradox comes from the fact that when it's heard as a maxim in some kind of verbal form, it is contradictory and not intuitively grasped. This said, paradoxes are best understood through experience.
The Stockdale Paradox is one such concept that, at first glance, takes some linguistic mental jumping jacks to fully grasp. This paradox was first put forward in Jim Collin's book Good to Great, a seminal corporate self-help and leadership book.
Author Jim Collins found a perfect example of this paradoxical concept in James Stockdale, former vice-presidential candidate, who, during the Vietnam War, was held captive as a prisoner of war for over seven years. He was one of the highest-ranking naval officers at the time.
During this horrific period, Stockdale was repeatedly tortured and had no reason to believe he'd make it out alive. Held in the clutches of the grim reality of his hell world, he found a way to stay alive by embracing both the harshness of his situation with a balance of healthy optimism.
Stockdale explained this idea as the following: "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."
In the most simplest explanation of this paradox, it's the idea of hoping for the best, but acknowledging and preparing for the worst.
What is the Stockdale Paradox?
After years in captivity, Stockdale eventually home.
The ability to acknowledge your situation and balance optimism with realism comes from an understanding of the Stockdale Paradox. This contradictory way of thinking was the strength that led James through those trying years. Such paradoxical thinking, whether you consciously know it or not has been one of the defining philosophies for great leaders making it through hardship and reaching their goals.
Whether it's weathering through a torturous imprisonment in a POW camp or going through your own trials and tribulations, the Stockdale Paradox has merit as a way of thinking and acting for any trying times in a person's life.
The inherent contradictory dichotomy in the paradox holds a great lesson for how to achieve success and overcome difficult obstacles. It also flies right in the face of unbridled optimists and those positivity peddlers whose advice pervades nearly every self-help book or guru spiel out there.
In a discussion with Collins for his book, Stockdale speaks about how the optimists fared in camp. The dialogue goes:
"Who didn't make it out?"
"Oh, that's easy," he said. "The optimists."
"The optimists? I don't understand," I said, now completely confused,
given what he'd said a hundred meters earlier.
"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."
Applying the Stockdale Paradox to your daily life
We all want things to workout for ourselves. We want to be successful, happy, and have achieved something no matter how trivial or personal it may be. Reaching this state of accomplishment isn't going to come just by positive visualization. That's all well and good and it makes us feel nice. It's why so many people like to listen to the endless screeds of "business gurus" and motivational shysters promising us the world if we only just learned to change our mindset.
Confronting the entire brevity of your situation is instrumental for success. There's a bit of positive visualization in there, but it needs to be counterbalanced with the thought that you can utterly fail and to put it frankly – your current existence might be absolutely miserable and hopeless. But don't lose faith, your wildest dreams just might come true. . . hence the paradox.
It's not about choosing which side to take, but instead learning to embrace both feelings in opposition to one another and realize they're necessary and interconnected.
Stockdale Paradox in business and hardship
On a higher level, and when it comes to business leadership and management, this duality helps to guard against the onslaught of disappointments that will hit you in the business world. Optimism may drive innovation, but that needs to be put in check to help ensure that you're still on this plane of reality and not bumbling naively into something that can't happen.
It's a great mechanism to keep yourself grounded, but also entertain the idea of being incredibly successful in whatever pursuit you're after.
The Stockdale Paradox can help out an organization assess a current situation and plan accordingly to tackle the challenges they come across. It enforces both the idea that you can be positive and believe you will overcome all difficulties while at the same time you are confronting the most brutal facts of your current situation. The latter is what turns people off, because it can be misconstrued as negative or overly pessimistic.
Similar ideas to the Stockdale Paradox
Yet, we'll find again and again that it is this line of thought that fosters success even in the most dire and inhumane of situations. Viktor Frankl, psychotherapy and holocaust survivor, wrote in his book Man's Search for Meaning that prisoners within Nazi concentration camps usually died around Christmas time. He believed that they had such a strong hope they'd be out by Christmas that they simply died of hopelessness when that didn't turn out to be true.
Here is a passage from his book regarding this thought:
The death rate in the week between Christmas, 1944, and New Year's, 1945, increased in camp beyond all previous experience. In his opinion, the explanation for this increase did not lie in the harder working conditions or the deterioration of our food supplies or a change of wealth or new epidemics. It was simply that the majority of the prisoners had lived in the naive hope that they would be home again by Christmas. As the time drew near and there was no encouraging news, the prisoners lost courage and disappointment overcame them. This had a dangerous influence on their powers of resistance and a great number of them died.
Frankl developed a concept he called "tragic optimism," that is, an optimism in the face of tragedy. This idea has gone through many names and iterations throughout the years. In the Nietzschean worldview, it's the idea that whatever doesn't kill you makes you stronger. Tragic optimism is similar to the Stockdale Paradox, as they both express a paradoxical idea about acknowledging your current difficulties intermixed with a positive belief that in the end you will still triumph.
The COVID-19 pandemic is making health disparities in the United States crystal clear. It is a clarion call for health care systems to double their efforts in vulnerable communities.
- The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated America's health disparities, widening the divide between the haves and have nots.
- Studies show disparities in wealth, race, and online access have disproportionately harmed underserved U.S. communities during the pandemic.
- To begin curing this social aliment, health systems like Northwell Health are establishing relationships of trust in these communities so that the post-COVID world looks different than the pre-COVID one.
COVID-19 deepens U.S. health disparities<p>Communities on the pernicious side of America's health disparities have their unique histories, environments, and social structures. They are spread across the United States, but they all have one thing in common.</p><p>"There is one common divide in American communities, and that is poverty," said <a href="https://www.northwell.edu/about/leadership/debbie-salas-lopez" target="_blank">Debbie Salas-Lopez, MD, MPH</a>, senior vice president of community and population health at Northwell Health. "That is the undercurrent that manifests poor health, poor health outcomes, or poor health prognoses for future wellbeing."</p><p>Social determinants have far-reaching effects on health, and poor communities have unfavorable social determinants. To pick one of many examples, <a href="https://www.npr.org/2020/09/27/913612554/a-crisis-within-a-crisis-food-insecurity-and-covid-19" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">food insecurity</a> reduces access to quality food, leading to poor health and communal endemics of chronic medical conditions. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has identified some of these conditions, such as obesity and Type 2 diabetes, as increasing the risk of developing a severe case of coronavirus.</p><p>The pandemic didn't create poverty or food insecurity, but it exacerbated both, and the results have been catastrophic. A study published this summer in the <em><a href="https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s11606-020-05971-3" target="_blank">Journal of General Internal Medicine</a></em> suggested that "social factors such as income inequality may explain why some parts of the USA are hit harder by the COVID-19 pandemic than others."</p><p>That's not to say better-off families in the U.S. weren't harmed. A <a href="https://voxeu.org/article/poverty-inequality-and-covid-19-us" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">paper from the Centre for Economic Policy Research</a> noted that families in counties with a higher median income experienced adjustment costs associated with the pandemic—for example, lowering income-earning interactions to align with social distancing policies. However, the paper found that the costs of social distancing were much greater for poorer families, who cannot easily alter their living circumstances, which often include more individuals living in one home and a reliance on mass transit to reach work and grocery stores. They are also disproportionately represented in essential jobs, such as retail, transportation, and health care, where maintaining physical distance can be all but impossible.</p><p>The paper also cited a positive correlation between higher income inequality and higher rates of coronavirus infection. "Our interpretation is that poorer people are less able to protect themselves, which leads them to different choices—they face a steeper trade-off between their health and their economic welfare in the context of the threats posed by COVID-19," the authors wrote.</p><p>"There are so many pandemics that this pandemic has exacerbated," Dr. Salas-Lopez noted.</p><p>One example is the health-wealth gap. The mental stressors of maintaining a low socioeconomic status, especially in the face of extreme affluence, can have a physically degrading impact on health. <a href="https://www.scientificamerican.com/index.cfm/_api/render/file/?method=inline&fileID=123ECD96-EF81-46F6-983D2AE9A45FA354" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Writing on this gap</a>, Robert Sapolsky, professor of biology and neurology at Stanford University, notes that socioeconomic stressors can increase blood pressure, reduce insulin response, increase chronic inflammation, and impair the prefrontal cortex and other brain functions through anxiety, depression, and cognitive load. </p><p>"Thus, from the macro level of entire body systems to the micro level of individual chromosomes, poverty finds a way to produce wear and tear," Sapolsky writes. "It is outrageous that if children are born into the wrong family, they will be predisposed toward poor health by the time they start to learn the alphabet."</p>Research on the economic and mental health fallout of COVID-19 is showing two things: That unemployment is hitting <a href="https://www.pewsocialtrends.org/2020/09/24/economic-fallout-from-covid-19-continues-to-hit-lower-income-americans-the-hardest/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">low-income and young Americans</a> most during the pandemic, potentially widening the health-wealth gap further; and that the pandemic not only exacerbates mental health stressors, but is doing so at clinically relevant levels. As <a href="https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7413844/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">the authors of one review</a> wrote, the pandemic's effects on mental health is itself an international public health priority.
Working to close the health gap<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNDc5MDk1MS9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYxNTYyMzQzMn0.KSFpXH7yHYrfVPtfgcxZqAHHYzCnC2bFxwSrJqBbH4I/img.jpg?width=980" id="b40e2" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="1b9035370ab7b02a0dc00758e494412b" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
Northwell Health coronavirus testing center at Greater Springfield Community Church.
Credit: Northwell Health<p>Novel coronavirus may spread and infect indiscriminately, but pre-existing conditions, environmental stressors, and a lack of access to care and resources increase the risk of infection. These social determinants make the pandemic more dangerous, and erode communities' and families' abilities to heal from health crises that pre-date the pandemic.</p><p>How do we eliminate these divides? Dr. Salas-Lopez says the first step is recognition. "We have to open our eyes to see the suffering around us," she said. "Northwell has not shied away from that."</p><p>"We are steadfast in improving health outcomes for our vulnerable and underrepresented communities that have suffered because of the prevalence of chronic disease, a problem that led to the disproportionately higher death rate among African-Americans and Latinos during the COVID-19 pandemic," said Michael Dowling, Northwell's president and CEO. "We are committed to using every tool at our disposal—as a provider of health care, employer, purchaser and investor—to combat disparities and ensure the <a href="https://www.northwell.edu/education-and-resources/community-engagement/center-for-equity-of-care" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">equity of care</a> that everyone deserves." </p><p>With the need recognized, Dr. Salas-Lopez calls for health care systems to travel upstream and be proactive in those hard-hit communities. This requires health care systems to play a strong role, but not a unilateral one. They must build <a href="https://www.northwell.edu/news/insights/faith-based-leaders-are-the-key-to-improving-community-health" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">partnerships with leaders in those communities</a> and utilize those to ensure relationships last beyond the current crisis. </p><p>"We must meet with community leaders and talk to them to get their perspective on what they believe the community needs are and should be for the future. Together, we can co-create a plan to measurably improve [community] health and also to be ready for whatever comes next," she said.</p><p>Northwell has built relationships with local faith-based and community organizations in underserved communities of color. Those partnerships enabled Northwell to test more than 65,000 people across the metro New York region. The health system also offered education on coronavirus and precautions to curb its spread.</p><p>These initiatives began the process of building trust—trust that Northwell has counted on to return to these communities to administer flu vaccines to prepare for what experts fear may be a difficult flu season.</p><p>While Northwell has begun building bridges across the divides of the New York area, much will still need to be done to cure U.S. health care overall. There is hope that the COVID pandemic will awaken us to the deep disparities in the US.</p><p>"COVID has changed our world. We have to seize this opportunity, this pandemic, this crisis to do better," Dr. Salas-Lopez said. "Provide better care. Provide better health. Be better partners. Be better community citizens. And treat each other with respect and dignity.</p><p>"We need to find ways to unify this country because we're all human beings. We're all created equal, and we believe that health is one of those important rights."</p>
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Vegans and vegetarians often have nutrient deficiencies and lower BMI, which can increase the risk of fractures.
- The study found that vegans were 43% more likely to suffer fractures than meat eaters.
- Similar results were observed for vegetarians and fish eaters, though to a lesser extent.
- It's possible to be healthy on a vegan diet, though it takes some strategic planning to compensate for the nutrients that a plant-based diet can't easily provide.
Comparison of fracture cases by diet group
Credit: Tong et al.<p>The results showed that vegans were especially vulnerable to hip fractures, suffering 2.3 times more cases than meat-eaters. Vegetarians and pescatarians were also more likely to suffer hip fractures, though to a lesser extent.</p><p>One explanation may be that non-meat eaters consume less calcium and protein. Calcium helps the body build strong bones, particularly before age 30, after which the body begins to lose bone mineral density (though consuming enough calcium through diet or supplement can <a href="https://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/Calcium-Consumer/" target="_blank">help offset losses</a>). Lower bone mineral density means higher risk of fracture.</p><p>Protein seems to help the body absorb calcium, <a href="https://www.bonejoint.net/blog/did-you-know-that-certain-foods-block-calcium-absorption/#:~:text=Historically%2C%20nutritionists%20have%20warned%20that,may%20increase%20intestinal%20calcium%20absorption." target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">when consumed in normal levels</a>. The recent study, along with past research, shows that people who don't eat meat tend to have lower levels of both protein and calcium. When the researchers accounted for non-meat eaters who supplemented their diets with calcium and protein, fracture risk decreased, but still remained significant.</p>
Credit: Pixabay<p>Another explanation is body mass index (BMI). Non-meat eaters tend to have a lower BMI, which is associated with higher fracture risk, particularly hip fractures. In the new study, vegans with a low BMI were especially likely to suffer hip fractures. That might be because having more body mass provides a cushioning effect when people fall.</p><p>Still, the study has some limitations. For one, White European women were overrepresented in the sample. The researchers also didn't collect precise data on the type of calcium or protein supplementation, diet quality or causes of fractures.</p><p>Another complicating factor: Producers of vegan products, such as plant-based milk, are increasingly fortifying foods with nutrients like calcium and protein, so modern vegans are potentially at lower risk of deficiency.</p><p>The researchers wrote that their findings "suggest that bone health in vegans requires further research."</p>