The unreasonable power of embracing paradox – How uncommon results are birthed

Common: The belief that the path to great success is paved with compromises.

Uncommon: It’s my hope that this post unravels this common assumption about success because, left unaddressed, it becomes a subtle psychological gash that hemorrhages one’s hope and the odds of producing extraordinary results.

I believe most readers of this blog want to experience an uncommon life of their own making. But such a pursuit is often met with common advice that, well, leads to a very common life. If you’ve shared your “unreasonable” ambitions with the world, then chances are you’ve likely encountered counsel that fits the following model:

In order to get ‘x’ you must be prepared to give up ‘y.’

It’s the classic case of a false dichotomy — the misleading presentation of a situation in which only two alternatives are offered. We’re taught that we can have one OR the other, but never both.

Bending the paradigm

For many of us, two things have been drilled into us. The belief that:


  1. Exceptional rewards are found in the extreme commitment of a single ideal.
  2. An extreme commitment to a single ideal creates an inevitable and uncomfortable tradeoff

So what often happens as a result of these two beliefs? Most people either:

  1. Accept that a tradeoff must be made and move onward, or…
  2. Change their goal (Beware the ‘reasonable’ dreamer: compromise begets compromise).


But fortunately, there are some who don’t see compromises as inevitable… these unreasonable few have given us much to be grateful for in our world. Essentially, they invent rules that change the rules. Accordingly, George Bernard Shaw made the following observation:

The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man.


But I believe it’s easy to misinterpret this quotation. ‘Unreasonable’ does not necessarily mean rebellious. And it doesn’t mean going against the grain for the sake of being oppositional. Nor does it mean making unreasonable compromises. In fact, it means quite the opposite: NOT compromising in the face of paradox. In other words…

The unreasonable game-changing individuals in the world enjoy uncommon results because they have developed an ability to uphold seemingly contradictory ideals at the same time.

One of the greatest American writers of the 20th century, F. Scott Fitzgerald, once asserted:

The mark of a first rate intelligence is the ability to hold two contradictory thoughts in your mind at the same time.

Turns out, this has only become increasingly true in the fast-paced and fractured world of today (keep reading to learn why).


Values are not for trading

The only inescapable tradeoff of paradox (and life) is opportunity cost in the form of time (there are only so many hours in a day). But this tradeoff does not and should not need to be a tradeoff of values. In fact, unreasonable people don’t make such compromises. I would go so far as to say that if the pursuit of a goal requires abandoning one’s core value, then the goal itself is worth reexamining.

The truth is, values and success need not become inevitable contradictions. Indeed, it’s the synergy of many contradictions that produce extraordinary results.


Not surprisingly then, leading an uncommon life requires the co-existence of differing, but complementary, values. For instance…

  • We must be incredibly focused and flexible.
  • We must be imaginative and grounded.
  • We must be cautious and take risks.
  • We must be suspicious and optimistic.
  • We must appreciate a home base and venture away from it.
  • We must focus on profit and value.
  • We must embrace competition and cultivate community.
  • We must appreciate predictability and learn to live with chaos.
  • We must understand the facts and value intuition.
  • We must be incredibly driven and live unhurried.
  • We must seek growth and sustainability.
  • We must appreciate tradition and be innovative.
  • We must value choice and simplification.
  • We must evolve and embody timeless fundamentals.

Take any example from the list above, focus on ONE value in the equation, and imagine pursuing a meaningful life/business/relationship with the absence of its contrarian counterpart. What do you get? A common, tiresome, often unsustainable result.

How paradox changes the world

There have been countless people whose immense success can be traced to the embodiment of seemingly paradoxical beliefs and values. It was the apparent contradiction that separated them from the noise. Some examples…

  • Abraham Lincoln: Freedom and unity.
  • Tony Hsieh (Founder: Zappos): Exceptional service and profit.
  • Richard Feynman (Nobel prize winning scientist): Extreme discipline and fun.
  • Guy Laliberté and Gilles Ste-Croix (founders of Cirque Du Soleil): Tradition and innovation.
  • Matt Flannery and Jessica Jackley (Founders: Kiva Microfunds): Individual capitalism and International economic stimulus.
  • Albert Einstein (Nobel prize winning scientist): Science and imagination.
  • Jimmy Wales (Founder: Wikipedia): Egalitarianism and regulation.
  • Howard Schultz (Founder: Starbucks): Scalability and community.
  • Bill Gates (Founder: Microsoft): Paranoia and optimism.
  • Salman Khan (Founder: Khan Academy): Education and gratis (free of charge).
  • Blake Mycoskie (Founder: TOMS Shoes): Profit and charity.
  • Jeff Bezos (Founder: Amazon): Immense variety and low cost (the long tail).
  • Richard Branson (Founder: Virgin): Business and adventure.

Name any incredible leader or company, and you will likely find two seemingly contradictory beliefs and values at their core. For these individuals, embracing these dichotomies is not a source of considerable cognitive dissonance, but rather, immeasurable inspiration.

Your turn…

We should never assume that a paradox indicates an either/or scenario. In many cases, the best option could be ‘and.’

As Scott H Young wrote, “Sometimes tradeoffs appear to exist simply because you haven’t seen an example that violates your assumptions.” It may be time to revisit your assumptions about the origin and engine of uncommon success so your tradeoffs become trade-ups.

How can you turn the values you’ve been taught to segregate into an engine of unreasonable drive that changes your world — and perhaps, the world for everyone else?

Your thoughts?

Do you agree? Disagree? What has been your experience in marrying paradox?


Stay uncommon,

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