Using the Stockdale Paradox to Overcome Obstacles in Starting Or Improving Your Lawfirm
“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.” --James Stockdale
In his iconic book Good to Great, Jim Collins relates the story of Admiral James Stockdale, a former Vietnam POW known for his resilience amid incredibly bleak circumstances. In explaining how he survived mentally and physically, Stockdale's quote above has come to be remembered as the Stockdale Paradox—the balance between facing difficult realities head-on while having faith and hope for the future.
Never has this principle been more apropos for businesspeople and entrepreneurs, especially for lawyers trying to start their own law firms during a global pandemic and severe economic hardships. Despite how bleak circumstances look at the moment, it's important to have hope for the future, and even to plan for it—but you must also realize that hope alone won't get us through. The only way to get to our hopeful future is to face our bleak reality now. That way, we have enough awareness to make tangible, practical steps forward.
Confusing Optimism with Denial
In describing his experiences, Stockdale talked about many of his fellow prisoners who tried to survive on “optimism”—believing they would be released by certain dates, then watching those dates pass, and eventually dying of disappointment. The problem is that many people confuse optimism with denial. True optimists don't pretend the bad circumstances aren't that bad. That's not optimism; that's denial. No problems get solved by denial. True optimists are willing to face harsh facts while still believing a hopeful future exists—and indeed, having faith in themselves that they can make it. It's that balance of reality and hope that gives us traction to start making choices that willultimately bring us to better days.
The Stockdale Paradox and Your Law Firm
If you were in the process of starting your own firm when this public health crisis hit, you might be staring down your own “bleak reality” right now. Perhaps you've lost clients. Perhaps your marketing efforts have fallen flat. Perhaps your income has dropped off. Perhaps you had to close your office and start working from home. These are real problems—the emphasis on real. You can't wish these problems away. But with the Stockdale Paradox, you can balance reality with hope to start finding a way forward. If you were to put it down in writing, here's an example of what it might look like:
The Harsh Reality:
Things are bad.
I don't have enough clients.
My clients don't have money.
I don't have enough money.
My law firm is currently unsustainable.
I don't know how long this will last.
The Hopeful Future:
I am resilient.
I am resourceful.
I can figure this out.
I need to look at this situation from a different angle.
I can think outside the box.
Notice how the first grouping is all about circumstances—things beyond your control—but the second grouping is basically an inventory of what you have going for you. This is on purpose because the key is having faith in yourself and your resourcefulness. By living in this paradox, embracing both sides of it, you'll naturally begin to apply your resourcefulness to a difficult situation. In the process, you'll start making practical decisions that might not change your circumstances right away, but will set you up for a prosperous future.
It's not one or the other; it's both. Don't be afraid to face your harsh reality, but never stop believing in yourself. That's the power of the Stockdale Paradox.
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