We all prefer to hang out with positive people.
Being with optimists is just more fun than being with Eeyores. But do things always work out for the better in a team of optimists? I wondered about this the other day after seeing some ‘I’m sure it will be alright’ happening in a break-out group at a big simulation exercise workshop. There was certainly a jolly atmosphere in the group. But by the end of the day they had crashed and burned in the exercise.
A little research the next day shed some light, I think, on what I had witnessed. It’s called The Stockdale Paradox.
James Stockdale (1923-2005), a venerated and much decorated US Admiral, was a Prisoner of War in a grim Vietnamese camp for 8 years. He endured torture without any promise of release, and yet devised many resourceful, practical, high personal risk methods to help others survive.
His answer to the question ‘which prisoners perished?’ was – ‘the optimists’. He noted that those who hoped and believed that “all will be well” – in the case of the camp that release was imminent – were inevitably disappointed and broken. Those who took a long hard look at the situation and faced up to the realities devised strategems and took actions that helped their survival.
They were not-quite-optimists.
Their optimism took the form of resilient belief in personal wit and strength to overcome. So the paradox was expressed ‘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 reality, whatever they might be’.
The ability to confront brutal facts yet retain faith.
Now those are the kind of people to hang out with.