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Why Successful People Are Secretly Pessimists

Based on the work of Jim Collins in “Good to Great”

Did you know that optimists are much more likely to die in wartime prison camps than their more pessimistic comrades?

It might seem counterintuitive that a dose of realism in a dire situation would keep you alive, but the experiences of Vietnam POW Jim Stockdale and Holaucoust survivor Victrok Frankel can attest to this reality.

Let’s start with a story…

During the Vietnam war, Admiral Jim Stockdale was kept prisoner in the notorious Hanoi Hilton.

Throughout his 8-year imprisonment, Stockdale was tortured over 20 times including brutal beatings and psychological interrogations.

Not only did he survive the war but his conduct during his imprisonment was honored upon his return to the United States and he went on to live an exceptional life returning to Stanford as a student after his military career.

When asked how he was able to survive such hellish conditions, he replied:

“I never lost faith in the end of the story. “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.”

When asked by his interviewer author Jim Collins who didn’t make it out, Stockdale replied;

““Oh, that’s easy,” he said. “The optimists.”

““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.”

And finally;

““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.”

So what does this have to do with comparably less heroic goals like losing weight or putting into place a fitness habit?

When most people set out to lose weight they spend a lot of time fixating on how good their life is going to be once they’re 10, 20 or even 30 pounds lighter.

They see themselves as 10 years younger, picture how people will treat them, and set their minds to how blown away everyone will be when they see their transformation.

They then spend slightly less time on coming up with a plan to accomplish said goal.

Most likely they join a gym, maybe even hire a trainer, look up some healthy recipes and commit to sticking to a routine.

What they importantly don’t do is focus on how to handle things when everything doesn’t do to plan.

The problem is that in order for people to undertake something as transformative as changing their bodies, they need to get really excited about the outcome to compensate for all the hard work ahead.

So in order to work up the motivation to make changes, they fixate on the wins they see for themselves without taking into account the fact that no journey is without challenges.

The average dieter only accounts for the outcome without considering that their path will be anything but linear.

They look for immediate gratification during the process in terms of weekly weight loss or mini-milestones that may or may not arise.

And when they get thrown off track they begin to get discouraged and based on all the data we have, the average dieter will never make it to their goal.

So what did they do wrong?

The problem is that they are too fixated on the outcome

Like the soldiers who perished in Stockdale’s example, these people are hedging all their emotional energy on a finite timeline.

Once they reach it without success, their motivational reverses are tapped and they fall off.

So how can you avoid this problem in your own pursuit of fitness goals?

First, do not confuse faith in achieving your goal with the idea that you control the timeline.

You must know that you will succeed without the obligation of finishing by a set date.

You must start speaking in terms of identity related to your goal that is not constrained by a deadline.

Example: “I make daily healthy choices because I will lose 20 lbs.” As opposed To: “I am going to lose 20 lbs by March 1st.”

Setting time goals is important for some things but when it comes to lifestyle changes necessitated by health goals it is better to stick to a general conviction that you will succeed and focus daily on the small actions within your control.

In Stockdale’s own words, “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.”

For more on the Stockdale Paradox check out Jim Collin’s book “Good to Great”

Or hear it from the Admiral himself in his book “In Love And War”



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