Freedom day, workload and the Stockdale paradox

Firstly no, this isn’t my suggestion for the name of a 70’s jazz/funk band. Although now I come to think about it…

I digress.

At the start of the last lockdown, the Government laid out a provisional timetable for easing all of the COVID lockdown conditions. The big date among them all was 21st June 2021 – the target by which all of the restrictions would be lifted. People were quick to latch on to this date and it became known as “Freedom Day”. Social media was awash with posts about what people planned to do once we were once again free to mix together as we had before. From what I saw, many were very alcoholic in nature and some downright obscene! That’s people for you.

I couldn’t help thinking at the time though, that while it’s good to have hope, by fixing so much on a specific date, people were leaving themselves open to a big disappointment.

Last night, in a Government briefing, it was announced that this date is in fact moving back to (in all likelihood) 19th July. Individuals and businesses are understandably disappointed as a result. I’m no fan of the current Government, they’ve made many mistakes though the pandemic, but in their defence this was always meant to be a provisional timetable. However, people saw the 21st June date and latched onto it as immutable.

About this time last year, when we were in the teeth of the first COVID lockdown, I wrote an article wondering when it would end.

I was reminded than of the story in “Good to Great” by Jim Collins related to him by Admiral James Stockdale. Stockdale found that the US prisoners in the Vietnam war who were less likely to survive, were those who pinned their hopes on release by a specific date.

  • “We’ll be out by Christmas.”
  • “OK, we’ll be out by Easter.”
  • “Well maybe we’ll be out by 4th July”

And so on. Until the endless disappointment broke their spirits and they could carry on no longer. Equally importantly however, it was found to be crucial that POWs accept the full gravity of their circumstances. Relentless “Polly-Anna Positivity” and keeping one’s head in the sand are, it seems, just as bad as each other. So Admiral Stockdale’s paradox goes like this:

  • Confront head on and unvarnished, the most brutal facts of your current situation
  • Never, ever lose faith that you will, in the end, overcome. However long that takes

As I wrote last year, I think the way we approach hoping for a future without COVID restrictions is a similar case in point. However, there are also many other times in life when the rules of this paradox apply.

I’ve had a great year running my own business and, while I have some work on at the moment, I could do with a bit more. I know that I’m doing all of the right things to bring in more clients and just need to keep believing that, eventually, something will break and the current lean patch will be over. But I’m not putting a date on it. To believe that “Next week, surely, everything will be OK” is a recipe for disappointment if it doesn’t happen.

What I’m finding really interesting is that, although I understood what was meant by the Stockdale Paradox, now I’m having to live it. It’s easy to know something because it comes from a good source or have read it in a book. To have to put that into practice in the teeth of difficult circumstances is quite another.

I don’t know when the COVID pandemic will be over. I don’t know when my business will turn the corner of this current lean patch. But I’m resolute that in both cases, eventually, things will be better.

This is the only sure and certain way to keep hope alive and to keep moving forwards in a positive way.

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