3 Ways to Change Your Thinking Today

Rachelle Gardner

Blogger: Rachelle Gardner

The writing and publishing life can be hard on the equilibrium. It’s full of ups and downs, hopes deferred, dreams dashed, dreams realized, ego strokes and debilitating criticism.

We wonder if we’ll ever reach our goals. We swing between high-on-life optimism and crushing pessimism. We decry that this path shouldn’t be so difficult. We rail against systems. We wonder how to write a good book. We despair of ever reaching our readers.

woman rainbowBut there is another way to think about it. Many of you have probably read Good to Great by Jim Collins, a classic book for business and leadership. In it, he explains what he calls the Stockdale Paradox, a way of thinking that can get anyone through the most harrowing of circumstances.

You can click here for a short audio clip of Jim Collins discussing the Stockdale Paradox, or Google the phrase to learn more about Admiral Jim Stockdale, a United States military officer held captive and tortured for eight years during the Vietnam War, for whom Collins named this Paradox. Admiral Stockdale had a unique way of looking at his brutal situation that allowed him to survive, and go on to thrive later in life.

As a writer, here’s how you can apply the Stockdale Paradox to immediately change your thinking:

1. Instead of wondering whether you’ll ever find success as a writer:

DECIDE that you will find success one way or another, regardless of the obstacles.

2. Instead of bemoaning the difficulties of the writing path:

EMBRACE your current challenges. Know that they will help you become the best person — and the best writer — you can be.

3. Instead of being optimistic and “looking on the bright side,” assuming publication will eventually be your due:

FACE your current situation realistically. Acknowledge every downside, every hardship, every difficulty. And be willing to ceaselessly take action to overcome these obstacles and find publishing success.

It’s a paradox because it involves holding two seemingly opposing things in your mind at once: a certainty of success, and an honest assessment of the obstacles. There is no unnecessary pessimism or defeatist thinking; nor is there any sugarcoating or unwarranted optimism.

Decide. Embrace. Face.


Do you need to change your thinking? How can you apply this paradigm to your own situation?



How does the Stockdale Paradox apply to the writing life? Click to Tweet.

Success requires that you first make an honest assessment of the obstacles. Click to Tweet.


Image copyright: artshock / 123RF Stock Photo




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  1. Life found a way to alter my thinking 72 hours ago; two falls resulted in one broken cheekbone (the other probably fractured) and a concussion. The world sure looks different. Not in good way.
    * Applying Adm. Stockdale’s paradigm is great, but it has to begin from a position of reality – he was determined to survive because survival was possible (and more likely than literary success). That is not always the case.
    * Consider the Alamo, and David Crockett. There was no way out, yet by the testimony of Santa Ana’s officers he fought bravely, and though captured, retained his honour, and in being tortured to death became a legend. Perhaps it was cold comfort, but perhaps not. I’d like to think it wasn’t.
    * To extend that analogy to writing is tough…I mean, unless you use too many adverbs you’re not going to be literally eviscerated…but perhaps one can say this –
    * There may come a time in one’s writing life when it’s clear that commercial success will not come. The voice may be out of season, or the Christian message may not fit in with the contemporary package, or whatever. Or it my become clear that you’re likely out of time.
    * There is still a way forward, and that is to keep writing, and to encourage and help others where you can.
    * There’s a chap coming out of the shadows to join Col. Crockett, to help illuminate the point…Fr. Maximilian Kolbe. If you haven’t met him yet, may I have the honour of the introduction?
    * Fr.Kolbe was imprisoned at Auschwitz, and when a group of inmates were sentenced to death as an ‘example’, he offered to trade places with a Pole who had a family – being a Catholic priest, Fr, Kolbe obviously had to wife and child about whom to worry.
    * The men in the group were starved and tortured to death, but Fr. Kolbe impressed even the Nazis in his determination to care for them. His life was lost, and the memo was about to cross his desk, but he still took it on himself to see every man off to God.
    * Of such things, thought Pope John Paul II, are saints made, and so it was done.
    * It’s important to remember -well, for me – that writing is not a success-seeking end, but a tool placed in the service of Love, and that the triumph is in the Becoming of Grace.

    • Glad you’re back, Andrew. I was worried. We were worried.
      * Writing is just one part of my life. You raise the the issue of life well-lived under the worst of circumstances. If I succeed at publishing, my children and grandchildren will likely have copies of my book on their shelves. But I am more concerned about the content of the memories they carry in their heads. I hope it includes, as you said, Andrew, “service of love” and “the becoming of grace.”

      • Shirlee, thank you. It is good to be here. One day at a time, now, a blessing sufficient unto each sunrise.
        * I think the question for you may boil down to this – to have the grandlittles, when grown, primarily think fondly on GrandMa the Writer, or to have them think fondly on that which you wrote?

    • Carol Ashby says:

      Good to have you back here, Andrew. Your thoughts were missed. Many of us are praying for you.
      Fr. Kolbe shines as an example of courage, honor, and love. A person never knows for certain how he or she will face the ultimate test of love until self-sacrifice becomes the only way to remain faithful to God. Would I choose to suffer horribly to remain true to Jesus? I hope so. The day may come when each of us face that test. Many of our brothers and sisters around the world are facing the test today.
      Decide, embrace, face sums it up well. Decide to believe in Jesus’s sacrifice to make us right with God. Embrace His teaching as our own way of life. Face the consequences of our decision in this world knowing what awaits us in the next.

      • Carol, thank you…I am so glad to be here, among friends.
        * Fr. Kolbe’s story is just so impressive…and the Pole he saved died only recently, knowing that in his own life’s hands he carried the heart of a hero.

    • Jackie Layton says:

      Glad you’re back, Andrew. I’m so sorry to hear about your falls, and I’ll pray for your healing.

    • I’m so relieved to see you writing. I’ve been praying …

    • So glad to hear from you, Andrew. I was worried after not seeing you active here or on your blog. Sorry to hear about the falls and injuries. You’re in my prayers.

      Great insights, as always, too. The clarity of your perspective is awe-inspiring.

    • You need to stop falling. And welding yourself. And generally feeling not great.
      I think we can all agree on that.

  2. Jackie Layton says:


    I’ll be thinking about this post for a while, and I’ll definitely consider it as I plan my 2016 goals. Thanks for sharing.

    Merry Christmas!

  3. This is such a great post to go into 2016 with. The idea of looking at what reality is right now—sans pessimism—and take action to make change.
    *I tend to be more of a reactor than a responder/proactive. I’ve been working to change this about myself. Using these three shifts in my thinking will be helpful as I adjust the way I perceive my situations and choose to be proactive.
    *Merry Christmas, Rachelle!

  4. Lara Hosselton says:

    Decide Embrace Face. I’m posting these words on my desk to keep me grounded, yet inspired. Thanks, Rachelle. Glad to hear your “voice” again Andrew. May God continue to bless us with your thoughts in the coming year.

  5. Carol Ashby says:

    Thanks for an encouraging post, Rachelle. It is a recipe for success that I’ve seen work many times in my secular job. However, “decide that you will find success regardless of obstacles” requires caution in application.
    Professional success carries the spiritual hazard of feeding pride and ego. It takes conscious effort to prevent that. Much of what is required to build an author platform tugs us in the unhealthy direction of promoting self rather than serving God with our talents. Success as a writer may not be certain if God knows it would hurt us spiritually by making us too proud.
    Sometimes God puts obstacles in our way to redirect us onto a better path. The challenge is knowing whether an obstacle is there to make us grow as we overcome it or to stop us in our tracks to protect us from something harmful.

  6. The first thing that came to my mind … this method would make a really interesting, determined MC! 😉

  7. First, thank you all for your kind and encouraging words., The fall was caused by a drastically worsened overall situation, and the prayers and support are more valued than I can say.
    * It should be considered, I think, that Adm. Stockdale was not so much focused on survival, but on survival in his role as a naval officer.The context makes a world of difference, because it kept him connected with a larger entity to which he was beholden by oath. It was the determination to live the DUTY, rather than to just live, that sustained him.
    * There should also be some consideration of the cost involved. John Dramesi was an Air Force contemp[orary of Adm. Stockdale, and in his book “Code of Honor” describes life in North Vietnamese captivity – and his three escape attempts. But Dramesi was not terribly popular among his peers, because in trying to escape he brought harsh reprisals onto the heads of others (and he was brutally treated by his captors for his three failed attempts). His single-minded sense of purpose was not wrong- no one who has not been in that position should dare criticize him – but he did have to live with the understanding that his decision, like Stockdale’s, occurred in and had an effect on context and community.

  8. Oh, Rachelle, how I appreciate this post. Thank you.

    As with many challenges in life, way of thinking on a given subject or situation can be day by day, minute by minute. I love Shirlee’s perspective in her comment to Andrew’s thoughts that our writing is only a part of who we are. Only a portion of the footprint we leave behind. It’s wonderful if our writing says something of purpose, meaning, insight to those who read it. Great if a book introduces a new thought or adds artistic value and entertainment to the world. But how healthy–how humble–to realize we are not only what we write as authors. We are mothers, daughters, brothers, friends, teachers, soldiers, caretakers, warriors, confidants.
    I’d much rather strive for this perspective. I’ll never stop dreaming and hoping for what might come with my writing. It is, after all, what I am convinced God planned for me. But it’s part of a whole created to be more. When I’m waiting in the silence for an answer, when I’m staring at the screen wondering if anyone cares what I’m writing, when I hold my breath as an editor critiques, I hope I can step back and set my thoughts on the bigger picture.

  9. Norma says:

    It’s essential. Applies to so many areas in life. I’m experiencing life-altering circumstances right now, I can’t even do my blog, no time to do it. Yet I know I will carry on and draw strength where strength is found. I like to say, we are stronger than we think. Now my teenage daughter quotes it to her friends when they are struggling.

  10. I’ll be looking up Stockdale’s Paradox, thank you Rachelle.
    As someone who’s spent the last 12 days mostly in bed-thank you, rusty old spine-I can attest to choosing to make the best of a bad situation. I don’t remember the first 5 or 6 days of this forced rest very well, morphine has that effect on me. BUT, because I had the “free time”, I started on my 3rd book. Heck, why not? As of last night, I am 38K into it. Not bad at all.
    I’d hoped to start it in January, but now I’m well ahead of where I thought I’d be.
    My house looks like we’ve been robbed by slobs, and my beloved husband never sorts the laundry, but the kids are fed and watered, and the livestock stayed by my side, unless he was guarding the house from fiendish criminals who dared walk down the street.
    It would have been easy to wallow in misery, but that’s never helped in the past. Whining is the verbal equivalent of rubbing sandpaper on someone’s nerves, and self-pity is mighty ugly.
    Those lessons apply in recovery, and writing. Few publishers will jump at the chance to sign a whining, miserable, and self-absorbed drama queen.

  11. Seem to me that one of the important things in facing the situation is defining it first.
    * I recently read that every new author is facing competition from thousands of TradPub books, as well as millions of Kindle titles…and that the odds of success are SO low…
    * It looks awful, but it was a trap designed to snare – and hurt – young players, because you’re only competing against the books within your own genre, and sub-genre. There are other filters that may be applied to make the odds even better, but the point is this –
    * Building up straw men and imbuing them with reality is even worse than the Pollyannish opposite, because nothing looks more stupid than defeating yourself in a game of solitaire.

    • Carol Ashby says:

      Spot on, Andrew! I love your comment about solitaire.
      Years ago, there was a Beetle Bailey cartoon where Sarge was giving Beetle a hard time about entering a drawing. As I remember it:
      Sarge: “Do you have any idea what your odds are of winning if you enter?”
      Beetle: “Much better than if I don’t.”
      My philosophy: You can never win the race if you don’t even run. No matter how bad the odds, someone has to win. Why not me?

  12. Michelle Ule says:

    Admiral James and Mrs. Stockdale wrote a terrific book about the POW experience called In Love and War. Sybil was just as important to Jim getting out whole as God. She was an inspiration to me as a young Navy wife and a reminder that we operate on a bigger stage, sometimes, than we think we do.

    My husband has used Good to Great many times in his post-military career. Curious how those books can touch on our personal, emotional and professional writing life. I’d not thought of their ideas that way before.

    Thanks, Rachelle.

    • Jackie Layton says:

      Michelle, thanks for the recommendation. I looked up Good to Great this morning on Amazon, and I’ll look for this now.

  13. Heidi Gaul says:

    Tweeting, sharing on Facebook, and saving to favorites. This blog and the accompanying clip, along with wise counsel, helped me face a very difficult decision. Thank you!