The Perfect Paradox

“I remember discovering that it was OK to think two different things at the same time. It was a revelation to me, that you could hold those tensions without it sending you mad.”

Steve Coogan

Confusion is a sign of an open mind. At least that’s what somebody said to me when I confessed that I found a particular topic all a bit bewildering. And it was reassuring not to have to take sides in a particular discussion but to sit with the messiness for a bit longer.

I was further reminded of this at the weekend when I was reading an interview with Steve Coogan when talked about discovering the concept of duality. Similarly, in a recent interview with Stephen Fry to promote his new book, Malcolm Gladwell attributes his remarkable ability to make insightful connections between apparently unrelated fields to his parentage (his mother is a Jamican social worker and his father a British mathematician).

“What you do if your parents appear to be so different, is you look for uncommon commonalities.”

Malcolm Gladwell

There is something about these paradoxical experiences above which I really like without quite being able to clearly articulate what it is. I guess I’m drawn to, and mentally also collect, perfect little paradoxes which somehow help make sense of the world. Here are just a few in no particular order:

  1. A Möbius Strip – the infinite 1 sided object, masquerading as a finite 2 sided object
  2. The Do Lectures – A really nice paradoxical concept (talking about doing) a bit like the TED conference (except in a tent in Wales)
  3. The Best Job in the World – I know a couple of people who feel great pressure because for some other people they have the best job. Needless to say it isn’t (and yet of course it is as well).
  4. Old and New – I love living in London which has paradoxically combines old and new rather well – creaking infrastructure with a vibrant new culture. ​​And yet I just spent some time in Abu Dhabi which is the exact opposite – brand new infrastructure combined with an ancient culture.
  5. Jazz – I both sincerely love and deeply hate jazz simultaneously, sometimes even within the same tune.
  6. WWW – The only acronym that takes longer to say than the words it describes
  7. Russell’s Paradox – “The barber shaves all the men in the village who don’t shave themselves. Assuming the previous statement is true, then who shaves the barber?”
  8. Integrative Thinking – “Instead of choosing one idea at the expense of the other, generating a creative resolution of the tension in the form of a new model that contains elements of the individual models, but is superior to each.”
  9. Bach’s Piano Music – Algorithmic music with so much beauty I always put this on if I need space to think.
  10. Esher – Because waterfalls and staircases should always go both up and down at the same time.

Anyway, collecting paradoxes has become something of a hobby but also increasingly has become the day job. The business of innovation is trying to navigate through uncertainty without passing judgement too early. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve been sitting in a meeting where people want to pass judgement on whether something is a good idea or not, to which the answer is usually, we don’t know yet. Whenever faced with a binary choice – left/right, true/false, creative/technical, public/private, black/white – remember the answer is always ‘both’.

As philosophies go, it’s not that sophisticated but I guess mine is something along the lines of “I’m always in until I’m out”. Keep your options open, keep an open mind and keep on searching for that perfect paradox.

by Roland


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