The Trouble with Optimism.

I want to talk briefly this week about the trouble with optimism.

At face value there shouldn’t be any; pessimism obviously being the uglier cousin, however, what if optimism, and its purveyor, the Optimist, is not enough? Or perhaps even wrong?

In my book, Feeding Johnny – How to Build a Business despite the Roadblocks I deal with the subject when I introduce the reader to a character, Admiral Jim Stockdale.

Below is that snippet from the book for you to enjoy. 

For context, we (my wife, 2 children – we have 3 now – and I) had moved to Limerick from Dublin in 1998 to take on the Bewley’s Cafe Franchise there – our first venture away from the relative safety net of the corporate world. The business failed finally in 2005, having lumbered to a slow painful death following a ridiculous rent review in 2002 that pushed our rent to €1,000 PER TRADING DAY!


The Trouble with Optimism

Admiral Jim Stockdale was the highest ranking US Naval Officer imprisoned during the Vietnam War. He was in prison for seven and a half years and tortured more than twenty times. He survived. Here’s what Wikipedia says on him:

Flying from USS Oriskany on a mission over North Vietnam on September 9, 1965, Stockdale ejected from his Douglas A-4E Skyhawk, which had been struck by enemy fire and completely disabled. He parachuted into a small village, where he was severely beaten and taken prisoner. Stockdale was held as a prisoner of war in the Hoa Lo prison for the next seven and one-half years. As the senior Naval officer, he was one of the primary organizers of prisoner resistance. Tortured routinely and denied medical attention for the severely damaged leg he suffered during capture, Stockdale created and enforced a code of conduct for all prisoners which governed torture, secret communications, and behavior. In the summer of 1969, he was locked in leg irons in a bath stall and routinely tortured and beaten. When told by his captors that he was to be paraded in public, Stockdale slit his scalp with a razor to purposely disfigure himself so that his captors could not use him as propaganda. When they covered his head with a hat, he beat himself with a stool until his face was swollen beyond recognition. When Stockdale was discovered with information that could implicate his friends’ “black activities”, he slit his wrists so they could not torture him into confession.

This guy was tough!

When interviewed for, of all things, a book about business, Good to Great author Jim Collins asked two questions the answers to which really spoke to me.

Collins, “How did you cope?”

Stockdale, “I never lost faith in the end of the story, I never doubted not only that I would get out, but also that I would prevail in the end and turn the experience into the defining event of my life, which, in retrospect, I would not trade.”

Collins, “Who didn’t survive?”

Stockdale, “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.”

When I read this answer I was dumfounded. I had to read and reread it to fully grasp what this real life hero was saying. He was effectively saying that the optimists amongst us, the people who see the best in situations – up to that point I counted myself as one – might have it wrong!

Thankfully Admiral Stockdale went on to clarify, “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.” In other words optimism alone, an inclination to put the most favourable construction upon actions and events or to anticipate the best possible outcome isn’t enough; it’s a start – and a very good one – but it must be backed up by ‘the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality’.

Our café had just failed spectacularly. We had no income. We owed €250,000. We nearly lost our home. We had a long road ahead. But somehow deep down I was sure we’d survive and thrive.


If you enjoyed that snippet and would like to find out more about the story and would like a complimentary copy of the book in audio, narrated by yours truly so you get all the nuances, feel free to grab one here:

If you’d like to find out more about yours truly and what I’m about, visit

Thanks for thinking with me.

Yours truly



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8 Responses to “The Trouble with Optimism.”
  1. Gretta McCormack O'Shea

    hey Colm, great stuff I am fond of the Admiral, since i met him, when i first read feeding Johnny, i have always believed that it is your faith in yourself that sustains you when absolutely everything else is gone. It is like”It will be all fine in the end, and if its not fine, its not the end. Keep up the great work my dear friend and thank you for thinking of me

  2. Michael

    BRILLIANT! I usually ramble on Colm, but this time there’s no need. I would be happy to have a “Coffee With Colm” each week and will look forward to it. I will also be happy passing this along to friends.

  3. Lorraine Duane

    Hi Colm, Loved it well done. It really stuck a cord. You know my story to date and I would be the biggest optimistic person on the planet however this has changed my mantra. Believe you will prevail this sits better. Looking forward to my next coffee a great start to my week. I will definitely pass this on . Keep up the amazing work ..Lorraine

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