How to Embrace Contradiction

Most of us can’t stand contradiction. Me neither! Yogi Berra famously solved the dilemma by advising “when you come to a fork in the road, take it.” However, I have found that there is a great deal of productive wisdom in the tension between some seemingly contradicting ideas. Here are a few to consider:

1.  Obsess about goals; then ignore them. Aim high, with precision, and do it in writing. But do it in pencil. Don’t become a prisoner of goals. Obsessing about goals helps with the most difficult steps, those of setting your true priorities, and making the habits and sacrifices that align around those priorities. This is incredibly difficult work that requires a near-obsessive level of intent. But once you’re moving, you’ll almost certainly have to alter or abandon an old plan in favor of a new and better one. The best entrepreneurs reimagine their businesses several times as markets change, competitors appear, and technology evolves.

2.  Master rules; then break them. Picasso learned to “draw like Ingres,” the precise French portraitist, before he learned to draw like Picasso. Learning to color within the lines (i.e., knowing best practices) will enable you to spot weaknesses in an existing model, so you can create a new one.

3.  Soar and “strafe.” See the world from 30,000 feet, as well as from ground level: both the forest and the trees. Only at high altitude can you come up with a big-picture strategy. But it’s at ground level that plans become reality. Only by alternating between big and small can you keep strategy aligned with tactics.

4.  Be generous and self-interested. Truth be known, everyone is self-interested. Whether self-interest manifests itself in an enlightened, long-term way, or in a benighted, short-term way, makes all the difference. Both are contagious. As you opt for the former, you may even see an outbreak of generosity and altruism.

5.  Insist upon trust, but accept betrayal. If you never get burned, you may not be lighting enough fires. Wariness sometimes protects you from others’ mischief, but it also limits your possibilities. Better to empower others as you forge ahead on a pathway strewn with dilemmas, contradictions and paradoxes. Indeed, life’s biggest truths generally lie beyond what we initially perceive. And most great results come from the efforts of imperfect teams.

Even Einstein never found a way to reconcile the theories of the cosmically large (general relativity) and the vanishingly small (quantum mechanics). But – as incompatible as these two theories have been for a century – both remain pillars of modern physics.