Paradoxical Virtues

In this recent conversation between Tyler Cowen and Peter Thiel, Cowen asks the billionaire start-up investor what kind of talent is underrated:

“It’s difficult to reduce [talent] to any single traits, because a lot of what you’re looking for are these Zen-like opposites. You want people who are both really stubborn and really open-minded. You want people who are really idiosyncratic and different, but work well together in teams.”

This is an idea I’ve thought about a lot as well, that many of the qualities you want to cultivate in yourself are seemingly contradictory. I can think of many examples:

  • Confidence + Humility
  • Consistency + Spontaneity
  • Persistence + Flexibility
  • Imagination + Skepticism
  • Vision + Attention to Detail
  • Social Intuition + Nonconformity
  • Extroverted Socializing + Introverted Thinking

The list goes on and on. In each case, seemingly opposite, or near-opposite, traits both appear to be valuable.

Is it Possible to Have Both Opposites in One Person?

Thiel, in his assessment on who makes the best employees or entrepreneurs seems to think so. And although it seems to defy logic, I tend to agree. I’ve personally met many people that embody seemingly opposite virtues in a unified personality, without the two simply averaging out to meet in the middle.

One of my heroes, Richard Feynman, embodied many seemingly paradoxical virtues.

He was a man of great focus, winning a Nobel in physics. But he was also intellectually varied, learning as diverse skills as lock picking, Portuguese and the bongo drums.

He had an incredible imagination, allowing him to visualize concepts and teach what he knew. But it was also combined with deep skepticism, aware of both the limitations of his own knowledge, and knowledge in general.

Or consider someone like Steve Jobs, who had incredible vision but also ruthless attention to detail. One story claims when Jobs was presented with one of the first prototypes for the iPhone, he dropped it in a fishbowl. When bubbles came out, he argued that was proof that the engineers had left space inside and could make it even smaller.

I’ve observed these seemingly paradoxical virtues in many of my friends, which suggests to me that they aren’t mythical qualities reserved for famous scientists and entrepreneurs.

Dealing with Paradox

If you think about these virtues, the most common way to deal with the paradox is to deny that one side of the paradox is actually a virtue.

This is a popular strategy in big-idea books. In the book, Smile or Die, Barbara Ehrenreich attacks optimism, arguing it results in taking foolish risks and political apathy. In Never Eat Alone, Keith Ferrazzi argues against the self-made individual, arguing the path to the success must be made through other people. In Good to Great, Jim Collins argues against so-called “foxes” who know a little bit about a lot of things, instead favoring “hedgehogs” who know one thing very well.

But in each of these cases, I can think of counterexamples. Optimists who are prudent and politically minded. Self-made individuals who know how to network. People who have deeply specialized knowledge, but still have intellectual breadth.

I think a better way is to try to dig deeper. Instead of throwing out one half of a paradoxical virtue, just because it seems to contradict with another, see how people who maintain both manage to integrate them. This can lead to interesting discoveries for the nuances of how to get the benefits of two virtues with seemingly opposite tendencies:

Persistence + Flexibility. I suggest here that people who always finish what they start, yet don’t get stuck from stubbornness, maintain an internal distinction between types of projects. If they mentally label a project in one way, they can quit it without guilt. If they mentally label it another, they have to finish it. That distinction allows both qualities to exist in the same person.

Imagination + Skepticism. A possible solution might be that these people practice both, but at different points in time. Generating creative solutions in one phase, and ruthlessly breaking down and fixing those ideas in another.

Social Intuition + Nonconformity. Nonconformists who don’t seem off-puttingly weird might get away with it because they’re actually able to conform to many standard social cues, so when they do flaunt convention they can still be relatable.

Make an effort to look for people who hold seemingly opposite virtues and try to figure out how they maintain the contradiction. Sometimes, as you dig deeper, you might find that the balance is an illusion or it is maintained at a serious price. Other times, however, you may find little rules of thumb that allow the person to enjoy both sides of the paradox.

  • Mike Lyons

    Scott, Checkout the Self-Made Billionaire Effect – it’s written by two VP’s from Pricewaterhouse Coopers who studied 80 self-made billionaires and discovered what they were able to do was integrate seemingly unconnected thought habits. You might find it useful.

  • Mike Lyons

    Scott, Checkout the Self-Made Billionaire Effect – it’s written by two VP’s from Pricewaterhouse Coopers who studied 80 self-made billionaires and discovered what they were able to do was integrate seemingly unconnected thought habits. You might find it useful.

  • I feel this to be an internal struggle for me on whether or not I can accept all of myself, or deny the pieces that seemingly contradict. Right now I am trying to encompass both my extreme visionary and strategist, with my meditative and present minded self who follows my heart in the moment. They seem to be logically conflicting when I think of it abstractly, but I am definitely both. Now I’m trying to figure out how to reform my existence to include all of me. Perfect timing to read this article. Thanks for sharing.
    -Tara

  • This sounds like an interesting book. I’m going to check it out.

  • Tara Schiller

    I feel this to be an internal struggle for me on whether or not I can accept all of myself, or deny the pieces that seemingly contradict. Right now I am trying to encompass both my extreme visionary and strategist, with my meditative and present minded self who follows my heart in the moment. They seem to be logically conflicting when I think of it abstractly, but I am definitely both. Now I’m trying to figure out how to reform my existence to include all of me. Perfect timing to read this article. Thanks for sharing.
    -Tara

  • Tara Schiller

    This sounds like an interesting book. I’m going to check it out.

  • ss

    I guess Einstein too was both a sceptic and imaginative person.

  • ss

    I guess Einstein too was both a sceptic and imaginative person.

  • John

    Because of posts like this that I still keep following your blog. Great insight, man! Feynman indeed was an extraordinary person with contradictory behaviors and mindsets. I don’t know if you already saw this, Feynman’s art: http://www.museumsyndicate.com/artist.php?artist=380 . Nikola Tesla was also an eccentric genius, something like Da Vinci’s caliber. Anyway, great topic with a lot of room for research and discussion.

    Thank you!

  • Hey Mike,

    That’s on my reading list!

    what did you think of the book?

  • Ben Austin

    Hey Mike,

    That’s on my reading list!

    what did you think of the book?

  • Katie H

    Another brilliant article with food for thought

  • Katie H

    Another brilliant article with food for thought

  • Bob

    I think a lot of people have many paradoxical virtues. I believe that we all more or less start off with these paradoxes but end up adopting one over the other because of situations where we used the wrong side and experienced a strong emotional response.

  • Bob

    I think a lot of people have many paradoxical virtues. I believe that we all more or less start off with these paradoxes but end up adopting one over the other because of situations where we used the wrong side and experienced a strong emotional response.

  • Valentino Aluigi

    on a similar note, I really like this post from Scott Berkun about opposite rules to live by: http://scottberkun.com/2014/the-rules-i-live-by/

  • Valentino Aluigi

    on a similar note, I really like this post from Scott Berkun about opposite rules to live by: http://scottberkun.com/2014/th

  • Stanislaw Gadomski

    Paradoxical? Why? All are positive!

  • Stanislaw Gadomski

    Paradoxical? Why? All are positive!

  • John Jácome Pazmiño

    You look cool

  • John Jácome Pazmiño

    You look cool

  • Sara

    I think the seemingly paradoxical virtues can be combined on a real Buddist,and Zen is also a Buddism culture.If you want to learn more about Buddism culture,I recommend you to read this book:Always Present,written by a wise monk.http://www.shambhala.com/always-present.html.Simply think this is a easy way to learn about the kind of people we are talking about.

  • Sara

    I think the seemingly paradoxical virtues can be combined on a real Buddist,and Zen is also a Buddism culture.If you want to learn more about Buddism culture,I recommend you to read this book:Always Present,written by a wise monk.http://http://www.shambhala.com/always-prese... think this is a easy way to learn about the kind of people we are talking about.

  • Kyle Hulsebus

    Dr. John Demartini goes through this very thing at his Breakthrough seminars.

  • Kyle Hulsebus

    Dr. John Demartini goes through this very thing at his Breakthrough seminars.

  • Great post. I read a lot of books and paradoxical virtues are something I keep coming across. Life is full of interesting paradoxes. I’ve yet to see a book that compiles all of them.

  • Ben Nesvig

    Great post. I read a lot of books and paradoxical virtues are something I keep coming across. Life is full of interesting paradoxes. I’ve yet to see a book that compiles all of them.

  • Reminds me of the saying “The opposite of a great truth is also a great truth.”

  • Dale

    Reminds me of the saying “The opposite of a great truth is also a great truth.”

  • shaurya

    I hope you write this blog for the rest of your life, because I have never seen a person so intelligent as you

  • shaurya

    I hope you write this blog for the rest of your life, because I have never seen a person so intelligent as you

  • Peter

    I work for a company with a large, direct sales force, and I’ve often wondered about this with regard to sales people. The pure selling function (acquiring new accounts) is best done by people who are insensitive to others, as they handle rejection well. (In fact, some aren’t bothered in the least). But the best account managers, charged with keeping existing business – are very sensitive to client needs. My company does not split the selling functions – we expect our people to both sell and handle business, but generally, we find people are much better at one than the other. Finding people who can do both is essential.

  • Peter

    I work for a company with a large, direct sales force, and I’ve often wondered about this with regard to sales people. The pure selling function (acquiring new accounts) is best done by people who are insensitive to others, as they handle rejection well. (In fact, some aren’t bothered in the least). But the best account managers, charged with keeping existing business – are very sensitive to client needs. My company does not split the selling functions – we expect our people to both sell and handle business, but generally, we find people are much better at one than the other. Finding people who can do both is essential.

  • Arun

    Interesting read!

    I had the same question in my mind everytime I see/read a self-help/business book that promotes one finely defined character as the main reason for all the success. And then in a short while, see another book that promotes a contradictory one as the reason for similar success.

    May be, a general trait for the most successful ones is their understanding that one needs all these traits and not just one or two, and knows where to apply…

  • Arun

    Interesting read!

    I had the same question in my mind everytime I see/read a self-help/business book that promotes one finely defined character as the main reason for all the success. And then in a short while, see another book that promotes a contradictory one as the reason for similar success.

    May be, a general trait for the most successful ones is their understanding that one needs all these traits and not just one or two, and knows where to apply…

  • CB

    Any recommendations (books or otherwise) for the Extroverted Socialization vs. introverted thinking paradox? I lean way towards the latter, but need the former also if I want to do well in my career.

  • CB

    Any recommendations (books or otherwise) for the Extroverted Socialization vs. introverted thinking paradox? I lean way towards the latter, but need the former also if I want to do well in my career.

  • The link to the video is broken.

  • It’s hard to gain any real insight from the personal/professional development literature on “how to be successful” for this reason. I think this could be good advice, except that it’s hard to tell the difference between “integrating contradictory virtues” and simply “being good at everything.”

    Do you see any real, substantive difference between this and simply… applying the “right” traits at the “right” time, which of course is not actionable or meaningful advice?

  • Neil Traft

    It’s hard to gain any real insight from the personal/professional development literature on “how to be successful” for this reason. I think this could be good advice, except that it’s hard to tell the difference between “integrating contradictory virtues” and simply “being good at everything.”

    Do you see any real, substantive difference between this and simply… applying the “right” traits at the “right” time, which of course is not actionable or meaningful advice?

  • LORD and DOUBLE LORD of LOL

    applying the “right” traits at the “right” time
    there is no contradiction, its applied one thing at a time.
    u obviously cant be critical and open minded at the same time
    but u can do one thing, and then the other.
    and switch again based on need.
    the “opposite” traits are good at different situation, so they have their uses.

    so are you applying the same trait 24 hours a day?
    doubt it , if you are an average person.

    but there is a more INTERESTING question:

    how DOES one go about acquiring those traits? or even just one trait?
    every traits, habits u have by now will get in the way, and u will have no way of canceling their effect.
    or do you?

  • LORD and DOUBLE LORD of LOL

    applying the “right” traits at the “right” time
    there is no contradiction, its applied one thing at a time.
    u obviously cant be critical and open minded at the same time
    but u can do one thing, and then the other.
    and switch again based on need.
    the “opposite” traits are good at different situation, so they have their uses.

    so are you applying the same trait 24 hours a day?
    doubt it , if you are an average person.

    but there is a more INTERESTING question:

    how DOES one go about acquiring those traits? or even just one trait?
    every traits, habits u have by now will get in the way, and u will have no way of canceling their effect.
    or do you?

  • rey

    TiNe. Thats the solution to the apparent paradox.

  • rey

    TiNe. Thats the solution to the apparent paradox.

  • Today
  • Today

    Removed the first half and got a working link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?…

  • Hi Scott

    I’m so glad that someone finally wrote about this. First of all, great post. It reinforced some of the things I’ve learned in the design school.

    What you’re referring to here is the design principle of divergence and convergence. And, if you want to look at it even more broadly, right brain (divergence) and left brain (convergence). To illustrate this quickly from one of your examples, Steve Jobs had both incredible vision (divergence/right-brained) and ruthless attention to detail (convergence/left-brained).

    One of the commenters below said that you can’t be critical and open minded at the same time. That’s absolutely correct. When you try to do them both at the same time, it doesn’t work. In this case, being critical would be convergent and being open-minded would be an exercise in divergence. Ideas for anything (including products/services) always start out with divergence (right-brained) and end with convergence (left-brained). I’ll elaborate more on this on my weblog at dazne.net.

    Anyway, thanks for writing this post.

  • Rishabh R. Dassani

    Hi Scott

    I’m so glad that someone finally wrote about this. First of all, great post. It reinforced some of the things I’ve learned in the design school.

    What you’re referring to here is the design principle of divergence and convergence. And, if you want to look at it even more broadly, right brain (divergence) and left brain (convergence). To illustrate this quickly from one of your examples, Steve Jobs had both incredible vision (divergence/right-brained) and ruthless attention to detail (convergence/left-brained).

    One of the commenters below said that you can’t be critical and open minded at the same time. That’s absolutely correct. When you try to do them both at the same time, it doesn’t work. In this case, being critical would be convergent and being open-minded would be an exercise in divergence. Ideas for anything (including products/services) always start out with divergence (right-brained) and end with convergence (left-brained). I’ll elaborate more on this on my weblog at dazne.net.

    Anyway, thanks for writing this post.

  • Tony

    There is an interesting book of russian scientist Sergey Yezhov “Dianomical logic”. In this book the author describes the new method which helps to understend these paradoxes. If somebody wants to get new skills in self development, I recommend to read this book 🙂

  • Tony

    There is an interesting book of russian scientist Sergey Yezhov “Dianomical logic”. In this book the author describes the new method which helps to understend these paradoxes. If somebody wants to get new skills in self development, I recommend to read this book 🙂

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