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.






T80pxtreewo stories this week had something in common. Not just with each other, but with any organisation that has created a strong tribal culture. Even your family, perhaps.

So to football, and faith.

Un-hampered by any knowledge, I found it thrilling to see besuited, burly men – self proclaimedly on the side of justice for us all – march into the Baur au Lac Hotel in Zurich last week and extract seven of Sepp Blatter’s FIFA High Command. Snowy white linen tablecloths and earpieces and microphones were involved. It was knee-huggingly theatrical.

The second story is that of an Ultra Orthodox Jewish sect in Stamford Hill North London – the Belz community – announcing a ban on women drivers. Designed to keep the ‘traditional rules of modesty in our camp’, sanctions are to include children of mothers who drive being sent home from their schools. Reactions from the wider community included the words ‘unacceptable’ (Education Secretary) and ‘abhorrent’ (former president of the League of Jewish Women).

We soon become clear about how outsiders view what’s been going on in these two communities – whether informed or no, right or wrong.

But what about inside?

How does that feel?

The FIFA coverage was soon in overdrive. There was little opportunity to hear from the believers. But what little did emerge was full of ‘only we’ and ‘we know what to do’ and bewilderment that outsiders didn’t understand.

A short interview with a woman who had chosen not to belong to the Belz sect offered a beautiful description of what becoming a true ‘insider’ involves.

She described the experience of finding, over time, the inner world of the group real, and the outer world… not real.
She talked of the life within the group being in full colour.

The world outside the group …. faded to grey.

To those on the inside, accusations and disagreements are all fading to grey: incomprehensible and far, far away.
The group talks only to itself, and can only recognise its own reality.

I wonder how we can all really spot this happening in our own groups? (I’ve heard quite a bit of corporate speak this week, and it all seems to deny an outside reality).  A dose of David Hockney’s latest photographs may help.

In a current exhibition he has experimented with group perspective.

He has assembled composite pictures comprising individuals all with their own individual perspectives. There is no single perspective for the group.

An unexpected energy and movement is created, just by subverting the usual ‘one vanishing point’ way of seeing the world.

And of course no part of the visible landscape is able to fade to grey.

There is colour everywhere.

David Hockney
4 Blue Stools (2014)
Photographic drawing printed on paper, mounted on Dibond, edition of 25