The Stockdale Paradox

You don’t go looking to third-place vice-presidential candidates for writing advice, but that’s where I found it today. For those of you too young to remember the 1992 presidential election, there was a cartoonish third party (“Reform”) candidate, a pint-sized self-made Texas oilman named Ross Perot. He played up himself as a caricature on outrageous infomercials, won his way into the debates, and ended up with nearly a fifth of the votes. His running mate was a navy general turned college professor named James Stockdale. He’s best remembered for the vice presidential debate, where he was mocked for what I think was really a plainspoken and honorable performance. I voted for Clinton, but I always thought Stockdale got a bad rap.

Somehow this came up today in an online discussion, and I defended Stockdale now as I did then. This led me to his wikipedia biography, where I read this amazing snippet:

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.

Stockdale was talking about being a prisoner of war, where he was treated brutally for several years before being released. His story is harrowing and amazing, and far beyond the mere challenges and frustrations of writing. However, I also learned that this combination of faith in the outcome and the courage to face harsh reality is called “The Stockdale Paradox,” and is considered important to success at any level, in any endeavor.

I’ll try to remember the line exactly has he wrote it when people ask me about the frustrations of writing, whether it’s rejections, writers block, bad reviews, or an indifferent reading public. How do you sustain your faith that everything will pan out? Paradoxically, by facing the hard facts. This is a hard business. It’s competitive. Not every manuscript was meant to be published. Not every book was meant to be a bestseller or an award winner. Few of us, even the bestsellers and award winners, will be remembered in a generation. You’ll just have to keep at it and try harder.

Maybe that sounds tough, but these words came from a man who lived in a closet-sized solitary prison for seven years and faced daily beatings from his captors. If he could face the facts, so can we.

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