Writers, rejection, and the Stockdale paradox

James Stockdale survived a brutal experience. He spent seven years in a Vietnamese prison camp, isolated and tortured. But he never gave in to their demands. While enduring horrific treatment, Stockdale became the leader of American resistance against Vietnamese attempts to use prisoners for propaganda purposes. In the end, his loyalty to his country and fellow prisoners prevailed. His captors released him and the other POWs, but he left the prison with his shoulders pulled out of their sockets, a broken back, and a shattered leg. Victory at a high cost.

Last Saturday, my church hosted the graduation ceremony for participants in a local alcohol and drug recovery program. About 500 people gathered to celebrate eleven people who had committed to rebuilding their broken lives. In his charge to the graduates, the director spoke of the Stockdale paradox, a phrase first used by James Collins (author of the business book Good to Great) who had interviewed Stockdale. The paradox illustrated the faith and discipline these graduates used to achieve their goals.

As I listened to the coping strategy that Stockdale employed while in prison, I thought of a blog post I read a few days before the ceremony. Kate (Limebird Writers) received a rejection letter after the literary agent had requested her full manuscript. Topping her disappointment was an ugly reaction from a family member. Here’s how Kate reports it:

“Now will you give up writing? Stop trying to get your damn story published. It is NEVER going to happen. NEVER. I know this is your dream, but not everybody’s dream can come true. And that’s just the way life is, Kate! After a while you have to tell yourself it’s not going to happen and do something else. This has gone on and on way too long. Face the music—give up the writing and move on.”

Kate describes her conversation with the family member as traumatic. You can read her post here. Her pain comes through her words. The post has received over 100 comments as the writing community rallies behind her.

Here are Stockdale’s words that made me think about Kate:

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.

Collins described this “philosophy of duality” as the Stockdale Paradox. Do you see how it fits in with the writing life?

Lesson. Faith. Prevail. Discipline. Confront. Brutal. Reality.

Hard knocks, pain, and dejection will come with the writing life. We can’t let them take our focus off the goal, but we must prepare for their . It is a paradox.

I know that the struggles we have as writers in no way compare to Stockdale’s experience. But I think he’d be happy to know that people like Kate might use his experience to rise above their circumstances, “whatever they might be.”

The title of Kate’s post is I. Am. Still. Writing.

Write on.


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6 thoughts on “Writers, rejection, and the Stockdale paradox

    1. I’m so happy that this post has helped fellow writers. I read your post (“Keep going”) and I’m glad you’ve chosen to carry on. Did you see my response to your comment re: Scrivener back-up, over on Limebird Writers (Paper vs. Electronic)? I hope it helped.

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  1. Hi Darla,

    Your post brought tears to my eyes. I want to thank you so much for your kindness and encouraging wisdom. I had forgotten all about the Stockdale Paradox until you wrote about it, and suddenly my journey has become crystal clear.

    I believe that POWs, writers, or anyone who needs to overcome great odds must implement the dual force of faith & discipline. Believing in your goals and believing that you can accomplish your goals ARE different from each other. But one doesn’t work without the other.

    I didn’t realize it until this post, but faith & discipline are exactly what have kept me going through all the upheavals, the disappointments, and the set-backs.

    There is one more force, I might add, that is also pivotal in my quest–and likely pivotal in Stockdale’s and those in the alcohol and drug recovery program–and that is the support of friends and of the community.

    Thank you, Darla, for being my friend.

    Kate aka Limebirdkate

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