From 1967-1974, one of the highest ranking officers in the Navy, Admiral John Stockdale, was taken captive and held prisoner during the Vietnam War. During his solitary confinement, among other things, he endured torture over twenty times.

Stockdale found a way to balance the reality of his situation by turning his pain into purpose. He shared with interviewer, Jim Collins, that not only did he not lose faith he would get out, but he planned to turn his time as a prisoner of war as the defining time of his life.

And even more, he wanted to, in retrospect, not trade the experience.

When you imagine looking back to 2020 in five years, have you framed this year as one of value?

This concept––to never confuse faith that you will prevail in the end, paired with the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be—is known as the Stockdale Paradox.

If we keep framing the year 2020 powerlessly, there is no paradox involved to instill intrigue, curiosity, or determination.

Instead it speaks defeat.

As creatures with innate survival instincts, it is natural to focus on what is isn’t happening, what frustrates us, and what is wrong and disappointing. When our brain focuses on these things, confirmation bias leads our brain to seek more experience to confirm it’s true: life stinks, 2020 is the worst, there’s no hope, I have to fight harder and louder.

It’s easy to say “good riddance,” but where’s the inspiration in that?

I hate to tell us this, but if our inner struggles aren’t reconciled in 2020, they’ll still be there waiting for us in 2021. 

Leaning into discomfort as events unfold, to even consider what it can do for us collectively and individually, is what can make this year something to look back on as a defining moment and one which has the potential to provide clarity about what’s important. The irony of hindsight being 2020 is not lost here.

Pressure is cooking, lives are aligning, roots are deepening, and we’re faced with the paradox of embracing the parts that suck while still maintaining faith that we can and will prevail.

It’s not easy. I’ve wavered through cynicism myself. I’ve struggled along with the rest of the 2020-haters, but there’s something too stubborn in me to say “If 2020 was a donut….” I don’t want to do it.  I want to frame this year powerfully. When I look back, I want to say something like…

I loved 2020 for many reasons, but one of the main reasons was because it challenged my faith. I wrestled for many months and through many tears, and I’m at peace today because of that year!

Stockdale was a follower of the ancient Greek Stoic philosophers, who were noted for their concern with understanding reality correctly and shaping one’s response to it optimally. Epictetus sums up my thoughts about reframing 2020 with this:

“What, then, is to be done? To make the best of what is in our power, and take the rest as it naturally happens.”

Reflect: When you look back at 2020, what do you want to say about it that will frame this year to empower you and people around you? Send me an email if you want to share, or drop it in the comments. 

Rachel is a Professional Certified Coach (PCC) through International Coaching Federation (ICF) for INspired Leadership at ESSDACK. She helps professionals get where they want to be, faster. 

Join us on November 12th and 13th as we Bridge to Resilience. On Friday the 13th Rachel is empowering “helpers” to communicate in ways that create breakthroughs instead of compliance or resistance. Come! It’s two days for only $99!  Register here.

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