If you’re a senior who’s procrastinated on your college applicants, you already know that you’re running out of time to complete them. You might also be filled with a combination of regret for what got you here with a fear that you’ll never finish on time. If you’re in that camp, here’s a tool that will help—embrace the Stockdale Paradox.
The Stockdale Paradox is a willingness to confront the brutal facts of your reality while remaining faithful that you’ll ultimately prevail. Named after Admiral Jim Stockdale, the highest ranking United States military officer to be imprisoned in the “Hanoi Hilton” prisoner of war camp during the height of the Vietnam War, the term was coined by Jim Collins, a former Stanford Business School professor who studied the secrets of the greatest companies and the leaders behind them for his book Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap…And Others Don’t. I would normally never compare enduring life as a prisoner of war with completing college applications. But Stockdale willingly shared his story with Collins for inclusion in a book about how to be successful in business. So I’ll take some liberties to apply it here.
Stockdale spent eight years in captivity, was routinely tortured, and lived in solitary confinement with no idea if he would ever be released or see his family again. He didn’t just survive, but also forged elaborate strategies to help his fellow prisoners survive. As he described it, he found it imperative to confront the most brutal facts of their reality head-on. If a fellow prisoner conjured up a hopeful vision like, “Maybe we’ll be out by Christmas,” Stockdale would respond, “We’re not getting out by Christmas; deal with it!”
But the paradox Collins points out is that in spite of the unimaginable circumstances Stockdale endured, he also had an unwavering belief that he would eventually be released and turn the experience into the defining event of his life.
That combination, the willingness to confront the reality of his situation while simultaneously remaining certain that he would prevail, gave Stockdale the discipline to direct his energies into the few areas that he could control. That gave him and his fellow prisoners some sense of daily purpose, something to buoy their resolve and their chances of eventually making it out alive.
When he was finally released eight years later, Stockdale was reunited with his family, hailed as a national hero, and awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor.
As Stockdale is quoted in the book:
“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 that mean to a senior with a formidable stack of application work ahead of you?
Confront your brutal facts. All that time you had months ago? It’s gone. Those impending deadlines? They’re getting closer with every second that passes. Will completing them be more difficult and stressful than if you’d worked on them months ago? Probably, depending on how much you have left to do. Those are your brutal facts. You can’t deny them. You can’t ignore them. You can’t change them. So it’s time to confront them. Head-on.
But you should also never lose faith that you’ll finish, you’ll come out the other side, and you’ll eventually be a happy freshman in college who’s long since moved on from the application process.
Lots (and lots) of students have been in this situation before you. It happens every year. And just about all of them not only finish their applications, but also get into plenty of schools.
You can’t join that successful group with unreasonable pessimism like, “It doesn’t matter anymore—I’m out of time anyway” or with false optimism like, “I’ll get them done eventually—I work well under pressure.” Neither of those attitudes gets you any closer to completing your applications or to attending a college you want to go to.
The best way to prevail? Face your brutal facts. Don’t ever lose faith. And most importantly, channel your energy into the one thing you can control. It’s time to get to work.