May

9

James StockdaleThis paradox is named after Admiral Jim Stockdale who was the highest ranking US military officer imprisoned in Vietnam. He was held in the Hanoi Hilton and repeatedly tortured over eight years. The "paradox" lies in the way that he managed to survive where others perished.

"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."

Asked: "Who didn't make it out?"

"The optimists. 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. Then they died of a broken heart.

"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." 

Kim Zussman adds: 

This recalls Viktor Frankl's "Man's Search for Meaning", in which he describes Nazi concentration camp survivors and those who didn't. He was surprised that big, tough guys were usually among the first to go. The psychiatrist learned to function as a physician at the camp, and managed to avoid despair by remaining mentally active. The book he wrote had been destroyed, so he re-wrote it mentally and memorized it giving him an important goal to publish when it was all over.

How much does mental toughness correlates with volition and how much with genes, and to what extent you can improve it? Suffice it to say you can't choose your parents.

From Stefan Jovanovich:

To equate survival in a prison camp with "mental toughness" is to indulge in what the surviving Japanese military leaders of WW II came to describe as "victory disease". You assume that a happy result says something about your intrinsic superiority as a human being when it doesn't. Neither Lance Sijan nor Eric Liddell survived their imprisonments, yet dozens of the survivors from their camps have said that they owe their lives to the help and example of the bravest men they ever knew.

I know Frankl's book was immensely popular when it was published and still remains one of the bibles of secular humanism; but I find it chilling in its narcissism. When I did some minimal research on Frankl's own life, I found it odd that that there was no one from the camps who praised Frankl for what he had done for the other survivors. I would have expected that from Theresienstadt, of all places, there would have been at least one testimonial - given its importance as the Nazi's show camp.

Joseph Fabry, the person best known in America as a "fellow survivor" with Frankl, was held briefly in a detention camp in Belgium, but was never in Austria or Germany with Frankl himself. (If anyone on the List knows of any testimony from others who were in Auschwitz and Turkheim with Frankl, I would appreciate the reference or link.) The only survivor commentaries I have found that could relate to Frankl are the comments made about the Jewish camp doctors. Sadly, those affirm that most of the doctors, like the Sonderkommando, put their energies into working the system for their own survival, not into the care of their patients.

I don't imply that those general comments apply to Frankl, and I lack the necessary chutzpah to judge anyone who was ever imprisoned for more than an evening in the drunk tank. What I can say, without embarrassment, is that I wish that Frankl's desire to find profound meaning in his own random survival had not encouraged the temptation to rank others as somehow inferior just because, like Frankl's own wife, father and mother, they were given different numbers in the Nazi's insane lottery.

What Kim Zussman did not quote were Admiral Stockdale's many remarks about those - like Admiral Alvarez - who never gave up. They, like Stockdale himself, were the ones who always did their best to help and encourage others.

Nigel Davies adds:

I don't know anything about surviving prison camps but this did strike a chord with me vis-à-vis chess players. I've met lots of players who are perpetually optimistic and this shows in every decision that they make. One very noticeable facet is that they tend to be very poor at defending inferior positions, showing a tendency to lash out. In one case I've known the parents too, and they weren't optimistic at all.

This made me wonder about the value of 'state of mind' in survival. A direct application would be to draw up a matrix of returns during the last 100 years applying 1-10 times leverage in stocks. I hypothesize that mild optimism may be an advantage, but with a rapid falling off of efficacy in higher doses.

Admittedly this would be very tricky to do 'realistically', for one thing there are not many 100+-year-old stock investors around and for another margin requirements will have varied considerably. But it might nonetheless be interesting to know that just how optimistic one might be in order to still triumph.

Kim Zussman remarks:

Martin Seligman wrote about "learned optimism" (as opposed to the inherited kind, which is much easier to acquire). In scientific trading, there is "optimistic learning" (OL).

OL is a variation of the scientific method whereby you open trades during the day's churn based on gut, then go back at night and do enough statistical studies to find at least two in support your position. Then you share these studies with at least two friends, who for social reasons don't debate your conclusion, and you are fully prepared for tomorrow's shellacking. 


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