Maybe we’re missing ‘that something else.’

For James Flanagan, the answer to an uncertain future could be in our past. 

Our lives have been transformed. We find ourselves both living and doing the same job under completely different conditions. Conditions made different by the absence of and missing the things we may have taken for granted.

We may, however, be missing ‘something else’. It is the conditions we find ourselves in, the discovery and utilisation of that ‘something else’ that this article is about. It will draw on the work of Collins and Bechtel and Benning.

The conditions

The Stockdale Principle was popularised by Jim Collins in his book ‘Good to Great’, a seminal corporate self-help and leadership book. The Principle is named after James Stockdale, a former vice-presidential candidate.

To understand a paradox, we need to experience it. It is in the experience that we find wisdom. The difficulty in understanding paradoxes comes from the fact that when heard first as a maxim they seem contradictory and not intuitively understood.

We now need the strength to get through to the end. That strength will come from discovering that something else which is the recognition and realisation of what we have achieved over the recent months.

Collins uses this paradoxical concept in James Stockdale who was held captive as a prisoner of war camp for over seven years. During this time, Stockdale was repeatedly tortured and had no reason to believe he would make it out alive.

Gripped and gagged in the grim reality of his hell-like conditions, he found a way to stay alive. He stayed alive by combining the brutal honesty of the situation he was facing with a balance of healthy optimism.

Stockdale explained the idea as follows, “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 ability to acknowledge one’s situation and balance optimism with realism comes from an understanding of the Stockdale Principle. It was this contradictory way of thinking that gave Stockdale the strength to get through his trying years. According to Collins, such paradoxical thinking has been one of the defining philosophies for people making it through hardship and reaching their goals.

Whatever hardships we have felt during the recent past, as we struggled through our daily lives towards our goals, whilst we were not in a prison of war camp, the situation we faced was unique to ourselves. The commonality we all faced, the situation we were in, ‘our camp’, was bringing up lots of things and feelings unlike anything we have experienced before.

As lockdown lightens and some liberation looms and lies ahead these feelings may be changing. Changing in a way we are not expecting. You may be feeling a little grumpy, short tempered or snappy, and that is fine. Fine because apparently, it is perfectly normal. Normal but not nice. What we are experiencing is a phenomenon called ‘the third quarter phenomenon’.

Robert Bechtel and Amy Berning put forward the idea of a ‘third quarter phenomenon’ in 1991. Their research found that morale seemed to drop and interpersonal tensions rise when missions and expeditions reached their third quarter.

No matter how long the mission or expedition was due to last there was something psychologically crippling about knowing that the first part of the journey was over, and a long tough period still lay ahead. Sound familiar?


The first part of our journey is over and although we now be used to it and lockdown may be lightening, it is still difficult, and a tough period lies ahead. There are, however, differences. The people in their research had volunteered and knew the end date. We did not volunteer for this; we do not know the end date; we may be running low on resilience and we need to build our reserves to go on.

Whatever the trials and tribulations we may be facing now; The Stockdale Principle has merit as a way of reframing what we are facing and emboldening ourselves for the next quarters.

Like Stockdale, we now need the strength to get through to the end. That strength will come from discovering that something else which is the recognition and realisation of what we have achieved over the recent months.

That something else

To discover that something else, you need not only to ask yourself the following question, ‘What have I achieved over the recent past?’,  you need to ask it in the following context.

Take some time out, an amount of time you feel comfortable with, to create a positive memory. Energise yourself by thinking of a time, any time in your life, when you were in full flow or achieved something beyond your expectations.

Immerse yourself in that time and allow all the feelings and senses you experienced then to emerge and take over. Experience and enjoy these positive feelings. This is your positive memory.

From this positive memory, reflect and really rummage on the recent past, recognise, and realise all the things you have achieved and discovered about yourself. Congratulate yourself. Write them down. Write them down so you can regularly remind yourself of these discoveries and achievements. Achievements before the recent past that you would have never thought possible.

Recognition and realisation will give you the healthy optimism that will allow you to prevail until the end. An end that will happen – we just do not know when.


About the author

James Flanagan is HR and OD business partner at NHS Resolution.


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