Cultivating a survival mindset: the Stockdale Paradox, Stoicism, and the importance of partying on

Maintaining a positive mental attitude is a major key to any survival situation. Or so we’re so often told. But could a positive attitude actually work against you?

Author Jim Collins explored the concept in his 2001 book, Good to Great. The book is about business and as a business book, it hasn’t aged well. (Two of the “great” companies listed are Circuit City and Fannie Mae.)

But it has an interesting tidbit about survival. Collins interviewed Vice Admiral James Stockdale, a survivor of the Hanoi Hilton during the Vietnam War, who told this anecdote:

Finally I asked, “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 earlier.

If a positive mental attitude is key for survival, how is it that the optimists had a worse chance of surviving their captivity? It’s a conundrum called the Stockdale Paradox.

Summary:

  • The Stockdale Paradox states that while a positive outlook is important for survival, hopeless optimism is a detriment.
  • The key is to fully accept your situation and maintain a positive attitude in spite of the odds.
  • James Stockdale survived seven-and-a-half years as a prisoner in Vietnam thanks to his Stoic philosophy that encourages embracing reality and disregarding comfort.
  • The keys to a survival mindset: faith, a sense of purpose, and being able to accept your circumstances without despair.
  • An alternative take on this approach is survival expert Cody Lundin’s “rational insanity” approach, which encourages you to respond to challenges with “party on!”
  • Being able to control your own psychology is a skill that takes practice, so work on cultivating these attitudes in normal life (where there’s still plenty of b.s. to deal with!)
Stockdale knew all too well that it did indeed suck down there.

Who was James Stockdale? Why was he there?

Those of us of a certain age remember Vice Admiral Stockdale as Ross Perot’s running mate in the 1992 presidential election and his disastrous performance in the vice presidential debate. He started off by saying “Who am I? Why am I here?” And it went downhill from there. Stockdale was skewered by Phil Hartman on Saturday Night Live, resulting in a sketch where Dana Carvey’s Ross Perot tried to dump Hartman’s Stockdale on the side of the road. Stockdale was forever branded as a senile buffoon.

As funny as Carvey and Hartman were, the media did a real disservice to James Bond Stockdale (yes, that was his real name — he passed in 2005), who was by all means an American badass. He was involved from the very beginning of the Vietnam War until the bitter end. For seven and a half of those years, he was a prisoner of the Viet Cong at Hỏa Lò Prison — the infamous Hanoi Hilton, which also housed future (and now late) Senator John McCain.

In captivity, Stockdale was a leader of the POW resistance, becoming one of the Alcatraz Gang that spent time in solitary confinement and faced repeated torture. When his captors planned to use him as a propaganda tool, he slashed his scalp with a razor and beat his own face in with a chair to make himself unrecognizable. He once broke a window and slit his own wrists with the glass to prevent his captors from extracting information from him.

That’s all to say that James Bond Stockdale knew more than most about facing extremely difficult situations.

The Stockdale Paradox

Which brings us back to the Stockdale Paradox. How is it possible that optimism could kill you in a survival situation? It comes down to accepting reality and maintaining realistic expectations.

Stockdale told Collins:

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. This is a very important lesson. 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.

Thus is the Stockdale Paradox: you must remain positive and never lose hope, but at the same time you cannot set yourself up for failure with unrealistically optimistic expectations that will inevitably crush your morale when they don’t materialize.

That means being able to accept the horrible truth of the situation you’re in, and not only being okay with it, but having unwavering faith that you will persevere.

The key to the Stockdale Paradox: faith and purpose

How can you face an utterly hopeless situation, fully accept it, yet not despair? For Stockwell, the answer was faith.

“I never lost faith in the end of the story,” he said, when I asked him. “I never doubted not only that I would get out, but also that I would prevail in the end and turn the experience into the defining event of my life, which in retrospect, I would not trade.”  – Jim Collins, Good to Great

Following his retirement from the Navy in 1979, Stockdale spent much of the rest of his career in academia, focusing on Stoicism, which he credited with his survival during the war.

Stoicism is a philosophy that traces its origins back to Ancient Greece, though it came into prominence under Roman emperor Marcus Aureilis. Stoicism, in sum, teaches accepting things for what they are, accepting your role in nature, placing virtue above all, and not being ruled by emotions and desires.

The Prepared’s founder, John Ramey, has been a practicing Stoic for as long as he’s been prepping and believes it goes hand-in-hand with surviving modern life.

Aurelius, Stockdale, and Ramey were heavily influenced by the Greek slave-turned-philosopher Epictetus, who dictated a work called the Enchiridion, literally meaning “ready at hand,” as if it were a sword or other type of weapon. Unlike most philosophies, Stoicism places an emphasis on action over thought.

In Stockdale on Stoicism II: Master of My Fate, in which Stockdale documented his Stoic philosophy as it related to his imprisonment in Vietnam, Stockdale summed up his view of Stoicism:

Epictetus was telling his students that there can be no such thing as being the “victim” of another. You can only be a “victim” of yourself. It’s all in how you discipline your mind. Who is your master? “He who has authority over any of the things on which you have set your heart. …What is the result at which all virtue aims? Serenity. …Show me a man who though sick is happy, who though in danger is happy, who though in prison is happy, and I’II show you a Stoic.”

In the seconds between ejecting from his Douglas A-4 Skyhawk and hitting the ground, Stockdale vowed to use what he knew would be years of captivity as a living laboratory for Stoic philosophy:

After ejection, I had about 30 seconds to make my last statement in freedom before I landed in the main street of a little village right ahead. And, so help me, I whispered to myself: “Five years down there, at least. I’m leaving the world of technology and entering the world of Epictetus.” – Stockdale on Stoicism II: Master of My Fate

Stockdale landed with a purpose and faith that he would live long enough to see it out. In contemporary military speak, it’s summed up as: “Embrace the suck.”

Rational insanity and a party on attitude

You don’t have to become a literal Stoic to develop the ability to “embrace the suck.” Early Christians survived and thrived through persecution. As the Apostle Paul said in 2 Corinthians, “Therefore I take pleasure in infirmities, in reproaches, in necessities, in persecutions, in distresses for Christ’s sake: for when I am weak, then am I strong.”

You absolutely do not need to believe in an organized theistic religion in order to develop this kind of philosophy or ‘faith.’

In 98.6 Degrees: The Art of Keeping Your Ass Alive, Cody Lundin advocates cultivating a “rational insanity” that can propel you through the toughest times:

​​During a survival episode, you’ll be taxed to the limit on all levels. In order to prevail and mitigate the panic factor, you’ll have to be as cool as a cucumber. You’ll need to approach your situation in a somewhat detached and rational manner, while gearing up your mind and body to accomplish the insane if necessary, thereby smashing all self-imposed limitations. Funneling the intense energy of insanity and uniting it with the sound coolness of rational decision making creates a potent force in emergency scenarios. Condensing this potency can best be summed up in one simple statement: the clarion call “Party On!” Remember it in your time of need or whenever you need a boost of courage or focus. Relish and relax in its splendor. It is the most optimistic statement in the world, one in which there is no opposite, no opposing force. It is the ultimate attitude adjuster and contains great power if used with conviction.

Lundin’s faith is more wacky and ephemeral. Instead of saying “I will survive” or “The Lord will welcome me in Heaven,” he says, “Doesn’t matter, I’m gonna party anyway.” The point is that there are many paths to developing a resilient mindset.

The key is to develop this kind of resiliency before you need it, just as Stockdale did by studying the works of the Stoics before crash-landing in Vietnam. Learn to practice a “party on” philosophy in your daily life.

Break a glass? “Party on!”

Cut your finger while cooking dinner? “Party on!”

Fall down a ravine and get bitten by a snake? “Party on!”

Major collapse? “Oh well, party on!” 😉


  • 16 Comments

    • Hardened

      One of your best articles yet.  I love the historical background and the valuable lesson.

      It does feel incomplete without mentioning potent tools of meditation, e.g., the Buddhist practice of metta, or “loving kindness”. 

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    • Nick

      Mindset is everything.  If you’re in a lousy situation and you believe you’re going to die, you’ll die.  If you believe you’re going to survive, you’re well on your way to achieving that.  This applies to both the big and small things in our every day lives, too.  Couldn’t agree more with all of this.  Well written.  Party on, Josh!

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      • Greg P Nick

        Nick, I just wanted to throw in a “ditto”  on your comment.  Party on, Josh!  Great article.

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    • Gideon ParkerStaff

      I would like to get a little personal here and share my experience with this topic. It was actually 6 years ago to the day that I was in a horrible motorcycle accident which left me paralyzed from the waist down. Over the past 6 years I have had so many people compliment me on my positive upbeat attitude and optimism for the future. They don’t understand how I can deal with something so horrible but yet be happy. 

      This article helped me to understand myself and the coping/survival mechanism that I have been subconsciously using to get through it.

      The two paragraphs of the article that stood out to me the most:

      “Thus is the Stockdale Paradox: you must remain positive and never lose hope, but at the same time you cannot set yourself up for failure with unrealistically optimistic expectations that will inevitably crush your morale when they don’t materialize.

      That means being able to accept the horrible truth of the situation you’re in, and not only being okay with it, but having unwavering faith that you will persevere.”

      I went to a special hospital for spinal cord injuries after my accident and most of the patients there were super optimistic about beating the odds, and being the test subject in some new experimental procedure that would allow them to walk again. I fell into this camp as well and was researching everything there was out there to get my life back. I spent so much money and time on therapies and different modalities to maybe regain some sort of function again. But none were successful. It was hard to see things not working out but I would just keep going on to the next thing that might work. Eventually however, I did what that first paragraph said and stopped setting unrealistic optimistic expectations that would crush my morale when they don’t materialize. I didn’t give up, but I wasn’t going to center my life around therapy like I saw many other people doing. 

      I learned to be okay with how I was and just move on with life like the second paragraph mentions. 

      It’s neat that I was implementing a survival mindset and staying positive and happy through my trials, but not blindly pursuing things endlessly to my demise. Truthfully, living with half your body not working sucks. I do have my down days and life really is so hard and discouraging at times. But that survival mindset I have seems to get me through it with a smile on my face. 

      Also… Party On Dudes! 

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      • brownfox-ffContributor Gideon Parker

        Hi Gideon, thank you for sharing. This is a powerful story. I am sorry for what happened. Kudos for building and maintaining a survival mindset and staying positive. I wish you all the best.

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      • Gideon ParkerStaff brownfox-ff

        I appreciate it! Life is too short to be sad, upset, and angry. Be hopeful, happy, and helpful and then you will see that things aren’t too bad.

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      • BlueSkies Gideon Parker

        So inspiring, thank you for sharing.  This section really resonated for me too.  I believe having (and keeping) your eyes open to what is really happening around you takes genuine courage, and although hard – that knowledge helps you to put yourself in the best position to develop and improve things.  I read someone somewhere defining the word ‘positive’ as ‘proactive’ and I like that a lot.  ‘Proactive’ gives a mindset like yours more of the grit and honour it deserves. 

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    • Dennis Carrier

      Hi Josh and great article.  Not too many people talk about the mental health quotient.   By co-incidence I’m working on something going into post-apocalyptic mindsets and behavior.  And it takes a journey into the dark side examining the psychology of violence in the post-apocalyptic world.  I ask questions such as “What if family members learn they hate each other?”  What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas.  But you take everything down into the bunker with you.   People might talk too much.  I examine mental health.  And scenarios where people might go insane.  How to deal with the mentally ill in this situation, etc.  I believe a sense of community is necessary like 3 or 4 families living near each other or in adjoining pods for mental health support.  Or you could end up with “The Shining.”  People standing above ground won’t hear the muffled screams and shots.  If nobody hears it, and nobody finds it, did it really happen?  Kind of like the tree falling in the forest thing.  I never liked the single bunker model.   And I like coal for heat.

      I also examine the theory that psychopaths would naturally assume positions of leadership.  And right now my analysis says no large model or “billionaire bunker” or government facility will make it past 2 years in another TOBA eruption.  I’m not done looking at them, but so far every one of them strikes out.   For one example, I think those are C-4’s or Cat 400’s in Larry Hall’s Condo Survival Project in Kansas.  He’s telling people they can survive 5 years in that place.  That’s not even remotely true.   I think just one CAT running at 3/4 load he’d burn about 80,000 gallons of diesel a year with that power plant.  And the wind turbines outside stop turning at minus 22F.  His grow operation is highly unprofessional.  And he plans on farming Tilapia in underground tanks.  Which is nuts.  Only one place in Kansas sells the fingerlings to my knowledge.  Seasonally.  Farming Tilapia is dirty and difficult.  Doctors now say farmed Tilapia is bad for you and especially bad for heart patients.  My conclusion is that everybody in these luxurious tombs dies.  NORAD?  Just one of their big CATS at 1/4 load burns 270,000 gallons of diesel fuel a year.  They have six of those monsters.  And they die for the same reason.  Energy.  At least VIVOS Indiana is more credible.  They say one year of survival.  But they say they have Geo-thermal energy!  What?  In Indiana?  I sent them an e-mail to ask how they did that.

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    • Barb Lee

      This is just a GREAT article!  Thank you!!!

      5 |
    • EzlyAmuzzed

      Thank you for posting this! The timing is great because I’m looking for something new to read I was considering reading about stoicism just before seeing this because now is a good time to learn with all these challenges we face today. I feel I mostly have this attitude already but always room for improvement!

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    • brownfox-ffContributor

      Well, now this is getting interesting. I am glad to see more discussion of mental attitude and resilience. I did not expect you to discuss Stoicism directly.

      For those interested in learning more:

      Stoic book suggestions

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    • brownfox-ffContributor

      Stoicism is a good fit for general preparedness and building a resilient mind. In “The Practicing Stoic” Farnsworth describes it as “taking responsibility for our own thinking”. This mindset fits well with many preppers. Compare with the SAS Survival Handbook’s “pyramid of learning” being founded on the will to live.

      The Stoic philosopher Epictetus said: “Whoever wishes to be free, let him neither wish for anything nor flee from anything that depends on others” (“Enchiridion”, XIV). That’s certainly taking responsibility for our own thinking. If we can’t always change the world, sometimes it’s easier to change our own desires and thoughts.

      Epictetus is also often a great motivational speaker on taking responsibility for our own actions:

      >Why sit and wail ‘Oh god, let me not be distressed’?
      >Moron! Do you not have hands?
      >Are you going to sit down and pray that your nose stops running?
      >Better to wipe your nose and stop praying.
      — “Discourses”, 2.XVI

      However, Stoicism may also be useful to those who want to build stronger communities:

      >It is required of a man that he should benefit his fellow men
      >many if he can; if not, a few
      >if not a few, those who are nearest;
      >if not these, himself
      >for when he renders himself useful to others
      >he performs a public service
      — Seneca, “On Leisure”, 3.5

      The best first prep is to not become a victim yourself. Put on your own oxygen mask first. But as we grow our own mental and physical resilience, helping others helps us too. If every human decided to prepare and become a responsible adult / resilient citizen, we would create a strong community indeed.

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      • Gideon ParkerStaff brownfox-ff

        brownfox-ff, from studying history, do you feel like society has become less stoic over time?

        In my personal opinion, I feel like for people 150+ years ago being prepared was just a way of life and if you didn’t, you died. If you weren’t stoic and had a survival mindset, you died.

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      • brownfox-ffContributor Gideon Parker

        >do you feel like society has become less stoic over time?
        >I feel like for people 150+ years ago being prepared was just a way of life and if you didn’t, you died

        Hi Gideon, fair point. I don’t claim to be an expert on this.
        Reading diaries and talking to people who e.g. survived the second world war, it certainly seems they had to be flexible, adaptable, and mentally resilient.
        But perhaps you are right – we never hear about the ones who weren’t and didn’t make it.

        Louis CK had a standup skit about this – “Everything is Amazing and Nobody is Happy”. Discussing e.g. wireless internet on an airplane cutting out, and passengers complaining about not having internet while simultaneously flying through the air in a high-tech machine.
        I think it is good to appreciate what we have. Compared to our ancestors we have a wonderful assortment of technology – indoor plumbing; heat in the winter; food available year-round.

        Then again, I have read survivor diaries of Europeans who traveled to North America as settlers and colonizers. When hard times hit – they did a lot of complaining.
        It may be the human condition to continually struggle for perspective. We are all the hero of our own story. I appreciate mental exercises and books that help me to gain some wiser perspective on that.

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      • Gideon ParkerStaff brownfox-ff

        Being appreciative for the things and times we have had certainly is a good way to live life. I’ve had to do that with my spinal cord injury. Sure I have days when I am kinda grumpy and wish I had my legs working again but instead of always being bitter, I try and be grateful for all the days that I did have my legs and the things I was able to do with them. I used to be a very fast runner and have climbed many mountains. I am grateful for those experiences.

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    • brownfox-ffContributor

      Thinking about related topics recently, I would like to call out one particular Stoic practice that is especially relevant to preppers.
      It is called negative visualization.

      Negative visualization is thinking about “what is the worst thing that could happen?”. And then mentally and emotionally embracing that outcome, thinking on it, and living in that reality for a moment.

      While this might initially sound like a bad thing, practicing negative visualization can be positive and have several benefits.

      One first benefit is practical, and likely familiar to many preppers: thinking about bad outcomes and events beforehand can help us to get ready for them, and prevent or mitigate.
      If you know what documents, gear, practice, or resources you will need before a fire, flood, or other disaster happens, you can get ready beforehand and gather supplies or practice your actions.
      This a central part of prepping.

      A second benefit can be getting ourselves more mentally prepared, and ready to accept or deal with events if or when they happen.
      This way, it is less of a surprise.
      For example, thinking ahead about dealing with the loss of a loved one, or even our own death.
      All of us are going to die some day. Getting ready for that so it is less of a shock to our friends or families is prudent.

      Even if we cannot be totally mentally prepared for some events, at least considering it beforehand may help to reduce some of the sting, or may let us be a bit less surprised or shocked.
      That may help us to deal with the actual situation when it arrives, rather than being caught mentally flat-footed.
      No matter how much time or effort we spend preparing, some bad things may still happen. Life is unlikely to be perfect or easy all of the time. So being better mentally prepared can help us deal with events that still happen, despite our other preparations.

      Thirdly – practicing negative visualization can help us to be more grateful for the things that we do have. It helps to readjust our expectations, which can actually help to boost our happiness. This practice has some scientific evidence from modern psychology that it really is good for brains, and helps us to feel better and happier.

      We humans seem to easily fall into a trap called the “hedonistic treadmill” – always wanting more and better things. You finally get a car. Now you want a fancier car. You lust and dream over the best Go Bag. Then when you finally save enough to get it you start wanting a better Go Bag. It is hard to stay happy when your expectations for what makes you happy keep moving and increasing.

      Author William Irvine says: “The easiest way to gain happiness is to learn to only want exactly what you already have”.
      Practicing negative visualization can help us with this.

      • For example: Think of one thing that you currently have or do that you really like, and really enjoy.
      • Now imagine: What was your life like before you had that, or what would life be like without it?
      • Probably worse. Right?
      • Now: return to your actual life. You have that thing. Does it feel better and good that you do?
      • Congratulations! That’s negative visualization.

      Practicing this, even for a few moments, can help reset our brains and help us to feel grateful for the things we already have. This can lead to increased happiness.
      If we think of our families, friends, or strong positive relationships and realize that they are temporary things that could disappear, we may appreciate them more, and be able to spend better quality time with those people (or pets!) while we can.
      This also helps to exercise the mental muscle of letting things go, or dealing with loss. And that can be a very useful ability.

      The Stoic author Seneca says “Misfortune weighs most heavily on those who expect only good fortune” (“On Tranquility”, XI.6). Many of us in the prepper community have accepted taking actions to be more prepared as part of our lifestyle. Including the action of mental preparation – and negative visualization – as part of that can be useful.

      (A good book if you want to learn more is “A Guide to the Good Life”, by William Irvine)

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