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Your Playbook for Navigating Life's Paradoxes by@scottdclary
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Your Playbook for Navigating Life's Paradoxes

by Scott D. ClaryOctober 19th, 2023
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Unearth unconventional paradoxes, from the Hedonism Paradox to the Paradox of Tolerance, in this thought-provoking article that challenges conventional thinking and offers profound insights into human nature and life's complexities.
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Hi All!

Here is my weekly email discussingmental models, performance, business, and entrepreneurship.


What’s in today’s newsletter?


  1. This article explores some really fascinating paradoxes that make you think. On the surface they seem completely illogical - but when you dig deeper it blows your mind how much wisdom they reveal.


  2. The paradoxes covered - like getting less happy the more you chase pleasure, or how being super tolerant can actually kill tolerance - seem unorthodox at first. But the more you reflect, the more they reveal nuanced truths about life and human nature.


  3. I write about how failure can teach you more than success, how we need individuality combined with social ties, and how accepting yourself paradoxically enables growth and change. The paradoxes are like intellectual zen koans that challenge assumptions in a pretty mind-bending (but thought-provoking) way.



On the surface, they seem totally illogical - two ideas that contradict each other. But when you dig deeper, they reveal surprising wisdom.


Take my friend James. He's a complete paradox. On one hand, he's an incredibly successful trial lawyer who argues complex cases. But in his free time, he volunteers at an animal shelter and fosters rescue dogs.


Total contradiction, right?


But in James' case, the paradox actually makes perfect sense. Arguing court cases fulfills his need for intellectual challenge. Caring for animals satisfies his nurturing side. The paradoxes in his character make him who he is.


I think we all have inner paradoxes like James. And exploring them can unlock new self-knowledge.


Paradoxes invite us to move past our usual linear thinking and binary categories. When we make space for contradictions, we open up to new ways of seeing the world and ourselves.

So today, I want to share some of my favorite mind-bending paradoxes.


On a personal note, reflecting on them sparks my creativity and helps me challenge my assumptions. Paradoxes are like Zen koans - seemingly nonsense riddles that guide you to profound realizations.


Hopefully diving into a few paradoxes here will spark some fresh perspectives for all of us!


Content Overview

  • The Hedonism Paradox
  • The Paradox of Tolerance
  • The Growth Paradox
  • The Failure Paradox
  • The Subjectivity Paradox
  • The Confirmation Bias Paradox
  • The Flow Paradox
  • The Perfection Paradox
  • The Knowledge Paradox
  • The Choice Paradox
  • The Patience Paradox
  • The Individuality Paradox
  • The Planning Paradox
  • The Acceptance Paradox


The Hedonism Paradox

Raise your hand if you love pleasure. Good food, travel, lazy Sundays on the couch... Don't we all want to maximize fun and enjoyment?


That's called hedonism - the idea that pleasure is the highest aim in life. And on the surface, it makes total sense. Who doesn't want to be happy?


But here's the crazy thing - the more we chase pleasure, the less we actually enjoy it. Wild, right?


Let me give an example. Imagine you take an incredible vacation to Hawaii. You lie on the beach drinking mai tais for a week straight. Absolute bliss.


But what happens when you get home? The contrast makes regular life feel blah. You miss the sun, the ocean, the drinks with little umbrellas.


Too much pleasure made you dissatisfied with everyday life. The pleasure paradox in action.

The same thing applies to everyday pleasures. When we have too much good food or entertainment, we get bored. The novelty wears off.


We also get let down when reality doesn't meet our pleasure expectations. Ever planned a fun night out that ended up being meh? Or bought some fancy new gadget that stopped delighting you after a week?


Chasing pleasure too directly is an uphill battle. The pleasure paradox shows we find happiness indirectly, through contrasts, surprises, and lowered expectations. More isn't always better.


So next time you're beating yourself up for not maximizing fun 24/7, remember - moderation and modesty might just be the path to true enjoyment.


The Paradox of Tolerance

Tolerance sounds pretty great in theory. Live and let live, right? I'll respect your beliefs, you respect mine. It's all good.


But here's the mind-bending thing - absolute tolerance can actually destroy tolerance.


Let me give an example. Imagine a society where all beliefs and behaviors are tolerated no matter what. That means tolerant progressives have to tolerate intolerant bigots.


The bigots then start undermining diversity and human rights. But no one stops them because "we're tolerant!" Soon the bigots outlaw tolerance completely.


This shows unlimited tolerance is self-destructive. As philosopher Karl Popper realized while fleeing the Nazis - to have a truly tolerant society, we can't tolerate intolerance.


Popper explained it like this:


"In order to maintain a tolerant society, the society must be intolerant of intolerance."


Makes your brain hurt, right? But it makes sense. We don't have to tolerate hate or oppression.


We can counter them with reason and free speech. But we should defend values like diversity and freedom against those who attack them.


True tolerance requires moral boundaries. It's the paradox that to preserve open-mindedness, we must push back against closed-mindedness.


So next time someone demands you tolerate injustice because "tolerance", remember - healthy tolerance needs limits.


The Growth Paradox

Ever feel like you're putting in the work but not seeing results? I've been there too. We get obsessed with immediate gains these days. But real personal growth is more like farming than instant gratification.


Let me explain with an example. Facebook in 2004. Just a simple college network at first. After its first year, only 1 million users. Not exactly viral yet.


But Facebook's founders were playing the long game. They kept improving the product, figuring out the business model, and building their team. They laid a solid foundation in those early years.


Then boom! Exponential growth. Today Facebook has 2.9 billion monthly active users. That's the power of exponential returns.


As investor Morgan Housel says: "Nothing happens for a long time, and then everything happens at once."


The lulls and plateaus are not failures. They're setting the stage for future liftoff. With personal growth, it's all about the long game.


So keep planting seeds through consistent effort. Nurture your skills. Tend to your relationships.


One day, those seeds will blossom beyond your wildest dreams. You never know which one will take off.


Resist the urge for instant results. Commit to the process, not the outcome. Your time will come.


The Failure Paradox

Raise your hand if you've avoided risks because you fear failure.


I know I have many (many, many, many) times! Stepping outside our comfort zones can feel scary.


But you know what? Failure is totally underrated. In fact, it can be our greatest teacher on the path to success.


Just ask James Dyson, inventor of the bagless vacuum. Early in his career, Dyson created 5,127 vacuum prototypes. And 5,126 of them failed.


Can you imagine? But he saw each failure as an essential step. Every mistake gave him more data to improve the next prototype.


After thousands of tweaks and tests, Dyson finally nailed prototype #5,127.


Now Dyson is a household name. James is a billionaire.


As he put it: "I learned from each one of those 5,126 failures."


Failure reveals our blindspots and flaws. It stretches our creativity. It builds resilience and determination. Failure is the ultimate personal growth tool.


So next time you're afraid of failing, remember Dyson's 5,000 flops. View failures as helpful feedback to get better. The more you fail, the more you learn.


The Subjectivity Paradox

What's going on in that head of yours? How does your mind make sense of the world?

These questions have stumped philosophers for ages.


Let's explore one idea - the Subjectivity Paradox.


See, we each have two sides:


  1. The Subject - our inner world, thoughts, feelings. The "I" at the center of experience.
  2. The Object - our physical self that can be observed and measured scientifically.


So are we subjects? Objects? Both?? It's a real mind-bender.


On one hand, I feel like a free agent - making choices, and taking action. But science sees me as a bundle of chemicals shaped by biology and the environment.


How do we reconcile those perspectives? Who's in charge - my inner subject or outer object? Questions of free will, identity, and morality arise.


This paradox applies to others too. We're all subjects navigating our inner worlds. But to each other, we're objects - physical beings to observe and evaluate.


So what's the resolution? Maybe we need to embrace the contradiction. Recognize we are both subjects AND objects, inner and outer beings.


As subjects, we can create personal meaning and values. As objects, we can learn from data and experiences. We can respect both facets in ourselves and others.


By transcending the paradox, we reach a higher level of consciousness. Not either/or, but both/and.


The Subjectivity Paradox resolved!


The Confirmation Bias Paradox

How do you figure out what's true in this world? I don't know about you, but I rely a lot on my own opinions and beliefs. They shape how I see things.


But what if some of my beliefs are totally wrong? This should be a very scary thought.

This brings us to the Confirmation Bias Paradox.


Confirmation bias is when we seek out info that fits our existing beliefs and ignore anything that contradicts them. Crazy, right?


Like only watching news channels that align with our politics. Or avoiding people with different views. It feels comfy to have our beliefs confirmed.


But this paradoxically traps us in our own limited perspectives. We stop questioning, learning, and updating our views.


Not so great for growth.


Our minds cling to familiar beliefs to avoid discomfort and feel rational. But this comes at a cost. Confirmation bias closes our minds.


So how can we escape this paradox? One way is to actively seek out opposing views that challenge our own.


It feels uncomfortable at first but forces us to rethink assumptions.

Another way is to expose ourselves to diverse people with different backgrounds and experiences.


This expands our perspective.


By becoming aware of the confirmation bias paradox, we can catch ourselves seeking self-validating information. And make an effort to disrupt that tendency.


Our beliefs don't have to stay stagnant.


There's a whole world of insights out there - if we keep an open mind.


The Flow Paradox

Ever been "in the zone" while doing something challenging? Whether it's sports, music, coding - you get so focused that everything else fades away.


Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls this mental state "flow." You probably experience it when your skills match the challenge. Not too hard, not too easy. Just right.


Flow is great for creativity, productivity, and well-being. Who wouldn't want more of that?


But flow has a tricky paradox too.


See, flow can both cause peak performance and be caused by it. Chicken and egg situation.

On one hand, flow happens when you're immersed in the challenge. This laser focus naturally improves performance.


But on the other hand, doing well can get you into flow! Because good feedback and results keep you engaged.


So which comes first - flow or peak performance? The answer: it's a loop.


Flow enhances performance, which enhances flow, which enhances performance.

They build on each other.


Instead of resolving the paradox, we can use it to our advantage. Seek flow to perform better. Perform better to keep flow going.


It's a virtuous cycle. We can ride this flow paradox wave to take our skills to the next level.


The Perfection Paradox

Perfectionism sucks you in with the promise of greatness. But it often leaves you anxious, overwhelmed, and feeling like a failure. Sound familiar?


This is the perfection paradox in action.


Ironically, chasing perfection makes excellence impossible!


Where does this faulty mindset come from? Two key beliefs:


  1. Perfection is possible and the goal.
  2. Perfection is the only way to be successful and worthy.


But are those beliefs actually helpful? Usually not.


This toxic combo creates constant pressure, fear of failure, and procrastination. It makes us lose perspective and joy.


So how can we escape the perfection paradox?


First, question those unhelpful perfectionist beliefs. Do we really need to be flawless to succeed or have self-worth? Is perfection even realistic for humans? Often, no.


Second, embrace imperfection. Progress requires mistakes and lessons. Let's celebrate growth rather than beating ourselves up over setbacks. We're perfectly imperfect.


Third, strive for excellence over perfection. Excellence is improving through effort. It's enjoying the journey of growth. Perfectionism chokes excellence.


The bottom line, perfectionism limits potential and destroys happiness. Excellence unleashes potential and creates happiness.


The choice is ours.


We can break free from the paradox by pursuing progress over perfection.


The Knowledge Paradox

Drowning in information these days?


From social media to 24/7 news, data is endless. But here's the paradox: more info doesn't equal more knowledge.


Interesting, right? You'd think with all this data we'd understand the world better.


But as philosopher Michael Polanyi realized, there are limits to explicit learning. His "Polanyi's Paradox" showed much of our knowledge is intuitive and unexplainable.


Like riding a bike. We can do it fine, but good luck explaining the physics to someone!

Our tacit knowledge exceeds what we can articulate.


So while books and courses are useful, they only go so far. True mastery requires personal experience. As Polanyi said, "We know more than we can tell."


This means we can't fully teach tacit skills either. Imagine trying to teach someone to be empathetic or creative! You can guide them, but some skills must be lived.


The paradox here is that the more we learn, the more we realize the depths of our ignorance. Knowledge reveals its own boundaries.


So next time you feel overwhelmed by facts and figures, remember: wisdom is more than information. Focus on unfolding your intuitive gifts, not analyzing more data.


Stay humble and curious. The knowledge paradox is our teacher here - knowing more is not the same as understanding more.


The Choice Paradox

Options, options, options.

We're blessed with choices galore these days. Need a new phone? Here are 50 models to pick from. Can't decide on dinner? 100s of restaurants await. More choices seem like a good thing, right?


Well, hold on. Too much choice can backfire and make us miserable. Surprised? Let me explain the choice paradox.


Every decision requires trade-offs. We weigh pros and cons, compare features, and anticipate regrets. This comparison shopping drains our mental bandwidth.


We also expect more choices will make us happier. But too often, we end up overanalyzing and second-guessing ourselves. Did I pick the perfect one? Should I have gone with something else?

Without realizing it, extra options burden us. They lead to decision fatigue, frustration, and dissatisfaction. Our minds can only handle so much complexity.


So while some choice is good, too much choice becomes paralyzing. What we think will make us happy can do the opposite.


Next time you're overwhelmed deciding between options, remember the choice paradox. Consider limiting your choices to a few quality options.


Your mind and happiness will thank you.


The Patience Paradox

In our fast-paced world, patience seems old-fashioned. We want everything ASAP - success, results, goals. Delay equals failure, right?


But what if patience was a secret weapon, not a weakness? What if it could make you better and faster in the long run?


Patience means enduring struggles calmly and purposefully. It's staying focused despite setbacks or criticism. Patience is a choice, not passive waiting.


It's seeing challenges as opportunities to improve. It's using feedback to get smarter. It's viewing failures as steps forward.


With patience, we practice more effectively. We experiment more openly. We iterate efficiently. Patience unlocks growth.


I know, I know - easier said than done, but we all have access to patience within us.


Next time you're frustrated with "slow" progress, remember the patience paradox.


Resist short-term thinking. Reframe struggles as a path to mastery.


Patience taps into our deeper potential. Progress takes time, effort and purpose. But the patient path leads to the most rewarding destinations.


So take a breath. Trust the process. Embrace the journey.


The Individuality Paradox

We love to celebrate bold individuals in society - the misfits, the creatives, the rulebreakers.


Being true to yourself is powerful!


But here's the twist: our individuality doesn't arise in isolation. It emerges through social interaction (a very non individualistic interaction).


Think about it. How do we discover our unique talents and interests? By trying new activities and getting feedback from others.


How do we develop our values and personality? By exposing ourselves to different cultures and perspectives.


How do we find purpose and chase big dreams? With support, resources and networks provided by society.


Even our sense of identity comes from comparing ourselves to others. Our differences literally make us who we are.


So while individuality seems defiantly independent, it actually relies on social immersion. We blossom through collaboration, not seclusion.


Next time you feel the urge to break from the pack, remember: individuality cannot exist without society. We flourish through both divergence and belonging.


The individuality paradox reveals a nuanced truth - being self-defined requires interaction. Our passions and purposes are unlocked through community.


So get out there and engage with the world around you. That's where self-discovery begins.


The Planning Paradox

Planning seems so responsible, right? Making strategic goals, assigning tasks, anticipating challenges. Sounds logical and necessary.


But what if planning could backfire and limited our potential?


Here's how it happens:


Planning assumes we can predict the future. We think we know exactly what we want and how things will unfold. But reality is messy and uncertain.


Our plans get derailed by obstacles we didn't foresee. New opportunities arise that we need to pivot towards. Priorities shift, assumptions crumble.


Rigid planning creates blinders. We get attached to one approach and resist course corrections. Adaptability suffers.


Over planning can even make us procrastinate! All that upfront work becomes overwhelming and intimidating. Analysis paralysis strikes.


So planning has diminishing returns. It gives clarity but can create rigid tunnel vision if we're not careful.


The paradox is that plans are essential but insufficient. Lay the foundations through smart goal-setting and project mapping. But leave room for surprises, growth and reimagining.


Balance structure with flexibility.


Plans guide but don't control. By embracing uncertainty, we unlock greater potential and opportunity.


The Acceptance Paradox

Accepting yourself and your circumstances sounds passive, right? Just resigning yourself to the status quo, flaws and all.


But get this - acceptance is actually the key to positive change.


When we accept ourselves without judgment or shame, the strangest thing happens - we become more motivated to grow.


How? Because acceptance quiets the negative voices telling us "I'm not good enough." It eases the stress distorting our thoughts.


Acceptance frees us from perfectionism. We can take risks, learn from failure, and be curious.

It's not passive resignation, but acknowledging reality so we can work with it. Acceptance creates space for action.


With acceptance, challenges become opportunities. Feedback becomes guidance. Setbacks become lessons.


We get comfortable with being imperfect human works-in-progress. And that comfort propels us forward.


So next time you're tempted to criticize yourself harshly, pause. Take a breath of self-acceptance instead. It will nurture your personal growth in surprising ways.


Acceptance doesn't mean giving up. It means embracing ourselves so we can become our best selves.


Anyways, that’s enough contrarian mental models for one day. I know this one was a long one, but when I went down this rabbit hole… there were too many good ones not to discuss.


I could probably do another 50, but I’ll save that for another week!


If you enjoyed this article, I’d love to hear from you.




Also published here.