The Power of Paradox I

Why is it so hard to believe two conflicting ideas? Why are we always fighting about whether one extreme is true or the other extreme is true? Why can’t the answer be both?

To answer these questions, let’s explore some of the false dichotomies that we seem to constantly fight about.

  • Idea is key vs Execution is key
  • Focus vs. Diversification
  • Delusional confidence vs. Paranoia
  • Work hard vs. Work smart
  • Decentralization vs. Centralization
  • Effective leaders are assholes vs. Effective leaders are kind
  • IQ is an important metric vs. IQ is a useless metric
  • Secrets / scarcity vs. Transparency / openness
  • Nature vs. Nurture
  • Democratic vs. Republican
  • Goal-obsessed vs. Independence from outcome
  • Data-driven vs. Intuition-driven
  • Anxiety should be reduced vs. Anxiety leads to competence
  • Technology can solve every problem vs. Technology is ruining everything
  • Capitalism is amazing vs. Capitalism is evil
  • Creativity vs. Logic
  • Great Man Theory vs. Technological Determinism

Why are we unable to believe both sides?

It’s unlikely that we’re bumping into any cognitive limit of the human brain. Our working memory isn’t great, but surely it’s good enough.

If it’s not a hardware problem, maybe it’s software problem. Do our minds actually prevent us from believing logically “inconsistent” ideas? I don’t think so. I’ve observed enough cognitive dissonance in the past month to last a lifetime.

What about emotions? Are these two conflicting ideas eliciting emotions in us that we are unable to feel at the same time? Are our emotions the real culprit?

That doesn’t sound right either.

I’ve considered many potential causes, but all roads have led me to tribalism.

Tribalism is why we can’t see nuance, why we can’t entertain in both sides, and why we can’t embrace paradox. Ancient humans must have been so ideologically rigid that the expression of an opposing belief meant the end of your lineage.

In other words, it seems as if we’ve been selected for our inability to embrace opposite extremes, especially if the other extreme represents an idea held by an opposing tribe. We are the descendants of the people who lacked this cognitive muscle.

Whatever the ultimate cause is, this behavior is now completely unnecessary. In other words, ideological loyalty to the tribes that we are a part of in the 21st century isn’t helping us, it’s hurting us.

Joining a tribe is not as harmless as it seems. In order to be trusted enough to gain entry, you must conform, just like ancient humans did. And to conform in the 21st century is to submit yourself to an unoriginal, uncompetitive, and uninspiring life.

No one is thinking independently. Instead, they’re getting sucked into tribal blobs of ideological homogeneity and losing any unique (paradoxical) insight that might have made them special or competitive. Couple this with the recent explosion in population and the problem is more clear. The more humans, the more ruthlessly competitive the tribal blob is.

My aim with this essay is to explore the idea that paradoxical wisdom is the antidote to tribalism and the feeling of ‘stuckness’.

In my view, the only way to get out of line, to step out of the tribal amusement park and into where life gets interesting, is to seek out ideas that are so different from your tribes that they feel paradoxical. Instead of indiscriminately rejecting ideas that are in conflict with our own, we should should understand them and scan them for truth value. Even if they are scary, even if they are uncomfortable, even if every tribal bone in our body quakes. We must do this regularly, as a cognitive habit.

“What sliver of sense and reason might be contained in an otherwise frightening or foreign phenomena?” — W.F. Hegel

This is paradoxical wisdom. It’s the unique opportunity to avoid external competition by embracing internal competition, which is the act of allowing contradicting ideas to fight a meritocratic battle in your head. There’s no better cognitive exercise than reconciling polar opposites, and for this reason, it is rarely engaged in.

It takes courage to throw out the beliefs that make you feel good, to risk the social bonds within your tribe, and to step into a realm of uncertainty. On top of this, resolving a paradox feels like trying to connect two same-sign magnets. It seems impossible.

We are afraid of paradoxes. As discussed, they make little sense to us. They nudge our minds towards an infinite loop of contradiction that taste like insanity — a mental practice we were paid genetic points to avoid.

I recommend putting all of these concerns aside and adopting a new framework when confronted with contradictory ideas. When approached opportunistically, extreme, conflicting ideas are a breeding ground for originality and truth.

In other words, the two magnets can fit together, like two puzzle pieces. But the scary space in-between the two pieces must be peered into for long enough to spit out answers.

One of my favorite quotes from Aldous Huxley:

God is, but at the same time God also is not. The Universe is governed by blind chance and at the same time by a providence with ethical preoccupations. Suffering is gratuitous and pointless, but also valuable and necessary. The universe is an imbecile sadist, but also, simultaneously, the most benevolent of parents. Everything is rigidly predetermined, but the will is perfectly free. This list of contradictions could be lengthened so as to include all problems that have ever vexed the philosopher and the theologian.

It’s easy to spot more of these, just pay attention anytime two smart people are arguing. Many times, they are both right in some ways, it’s rarely one-or-the-other and often case-dependent.

But, because we’re human, we pick a side, marry that ideology, join the tribe, entangle its ideas with our identity, refuse to update our beliefs in light of new information, and get more stuck and more wrong over time. When an ideology is based on only 50% of reality, it’s not going to pay the bills.

Some people do understand the paradoxical nature of truth seeking, but they are almost never the people making the most important decisions in these domains (a contradiction we desperately need to solve soon).

I’ll leave you with this:

Whenever you come across a hard problem or a new challenge, search for the underlying paradox as soon as you can. Wherever there’s truth, wherever there’s complexity, wherever there’s feedback loops, it will be there, waiting for you to discover what contradictory forces it is caught in-between and hoping you’ll rescue it.

Part II is on the way.

Juyan Azhang, Co-founder @ Chalk

Co-founder @ Chalk. Rebuilding the phone call.

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