One of the best tools for expanding the mind is the contradiction.
Contradictions challenge us, demand more from us, and may ultimately reward us. They inspire questions we would have never thought to ask and adopt novel perspectives we’d have never considered.
Are you around enough contradictions?
An idea that I’ve been meditating on recently is that of servant leadership. Taken literally, this phrase makes little sense. How could a leader also be a servant? This gets us to start thinking. What are the qualities of good servantship? What might a leader gain by adding those skills to their repertoire? Could followers also paradoxically act as good leaders for their leader?
In the end, it’s not about reaching the end. It’s about the questions that arise along the way. Paradoxes, in their tension, can produce a flurry of questions — similar to how electrical current only flows once opposite polarities are present.
“Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all those other forms....”
— Winston Churchill
Again, Churchill’s paradoxical take on democracy inspires thought. In this case, it gets us to both attack and protect the idea of democracy. If democracy is the best, in what ways does it serve us well? If democracy is the worst, in what ways does it fail us?
Perhaps, therein lies the genius of democracy. Rather than the government becoming an object of blind hatred (as eventually happens with other forms of government), by exalting the governed as the government, it compels us to stop and think for a second: “Is there anything we the people could have done better?”
At the same time, democracy falls apart because it regresses quite easily into the other forms of government it aims to protect us from. In fact, rather than a tyrannical monarch, we may just end up being ruled by an even more tyrannical mob — and even assume we’re better for it.
“All models are wrong, but some are useful”
— George Box
I’ll end with one of my favorites. The beauty of this contradiction is that it is the ultimate dose of humility. It reassures us that our goal isn’t perfectness, it’s whatever is useful to us. Rather than Truth being a Platonic ideal that we consistently fail to realize, what if we instead evaluated our truths by how well they served us instead? This spins the idea of truth on it’s head — from a fixed certainty to a transient guidepost. It lets us walk away from our old perceptions easily, because they were never meant to last anyway.
What are your favorite contradictions? I’d love to hear them.