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A Short Story of Optimism

Our history has been stained with wars and it has impacted everything that we read in our history books. Most of those wars continue to shape the world even today. In fact, very few students realise that after the Second World war ended in 1945, Europe was totally bankrupt and weak. The British had also lost the will power to hold on to India and other colonies by force. That is when the untiring struggle of our great freedom fighters finally bore fruit. The historic day of 15th August 1947 which we celebrate as Independence Day was thus in part a result of the damage done by the World War.

One such war started in 1955 and ended in 1975. The Vietnam war, famous for the embarrassing loss for the United States of America and its allies. The US faced heavy loss of military men and machines and money before finally accepting defeat. The story is from the middle of this war.

September 9, 1965

Commander James Stockdale was instructed to destroy enemy targets in North Vietnam with his Douglas A-4 Skyhawk fighter jet. On board the Navy ship USS Oriskany, they planned the mission to the very last detail. Stockdale prepared his fighter plane with the engineers, sat and left for the mission with confidence in the morning.

Unexpectedly, the Vietnamese firing took him by surprise and hit his fighter jet. The Skyhawk was so badly damaged that it completely stopped working. Stockdale had only one option, eject from the plane and try to save his life. He ejected and with the help of his parachute he landed in a small village of Vietnam. The local villagers beat him badly as soon as he landed. The Vietnamese army then arrested Stockdale from the village and put him in prison. He was now a prisoner of war staring at extreme torture and ultimate death in a Prisoner of War (POW) camp in Hanoi.

In the POW camp there were many other fellow American soldiers captured before him and Stockdale was the most senior officer. That didn't change much for him because he was beaten badly on a daily basis like others to extract information about the US military plans. They were made to work hard in injured conditions without any medical attention. They were deliberately denied medical help so that the injuries would hurt even more and they would slowly die a torturous death. He knew they would not survive long in the torture, they had already broken his legs twice.

42 year old Commander Stockdale decided to take matter into his own hands. He tried to bring the fellow prisoners together into a Resistance Group. They would make strategies on how to bear the torture with less pain, divided the work to save those who were badly hurt, save energy and food and medical supplies secretly to help each other survive. It wasn't enough because Vietnamese soldiers found out about the Group soon. Ruthlessly, they separated him from the rest of the group and continued the torture for the next seven and a half years.

February 12, 1973

Commander Stockdale survived the camp. Yes, he returned home when US accepted it's defeat and requested Vietnam to release it's captured soldiers on humanitarian grounds. Sadly, a lot of other prisoners - young 20, 30 year old American soldiers who worked under Stockdale could not survive the torture of the POW camps and died. They could not return home. Stockdale, now 50 years old, had survived. He was relieved to be home but not happy. The loss of young soldiers in those camps haunted him.

One casual morning... the "Stockdale Paradox"

Stockdale had a visitor. The visitor had come to ask a few questions about his life in Vietnamese POW camps. One of the questions was - Who were the prisoners who could not survive, who could not make it out alive from that POW camp?

Here is Stockdale's exact answer which is now known as the "Stockdale Paradox" -

"Oh, that's easy, 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."

The Message

If you do not accept your mistakes, your weaknesses and the threats to your goal - then hollow Optimism is toxic, it will lead to heartbreak. So the important rule is to have the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality.

Look yourself in the mirror every morning and ask yourself the tough question - Am I putting in the hard work and sincerity needed to achieve my goals? If the honest answer is no, accept it peacefully and have faith in your ability. Then, self improvement will happen slowly but automatically. That is the most basic and necessary thing you need to achieve your goals. All the best!

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The bonus video today is a Jack Ma interview where he talks about his rejections in life and the attitude that made him win. Hear him very carefully and tell us what you learnt.

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