No paradox in my life has been more stark than the current COVID-19 paradox: with the great relief of vaccines on the horizon, we’re seeing massive increases in the amount of casualties. The former inspires hope and a quick end; the latter, destruction and devastation. I cannot think of a more stark paradox to have confronted society, at least in my lifetime.
Furthermore, we still have a seemingly endless supply of paradoxical phenomena in the economy: the S&P is up, but so is unemployment. Great wealth has been created during the pandemic, but wealth disparity is greater than ever.
But paradox is nothing new. While particularly highlighted by the COVID crisis, paradox is and will probably always be all around us, all of the time.
An entrepreneur/founder works on great things, but is unable to get funding.
A business creates a better product, but no one will use it.
A person is great in one role, but terrible in the next.
These paradoxes are consistent in business, in daily life, and in society in general. Today’s crazy world forces these challenges upon us. Indeed, a couple of weeks ago, my wife called me out for looking on the bright side too much, saying that it’s magical thinking to assume that the COVID vaccine would solve all COVID-related issues and that a return to normalcy was coming sooner than the experts believed. Won’t you be crushed when this doesn’t happen?
It was a fair point, but it also led me to the Stockdale Paradox, which was highlighted in Jim Collins’ book Good to Great. The basic premise of the Stockdale Paradox, according to Collins, is that you must maintain unwavering hope while also maintaining a realistic and honest perspective on the present situation. The paradox is based on Admiral Stockdale’s recounting of his time as a prisoner of war in Vietnam, where he was held for nearly seven years. He had a firm belief that the ordeal would end, but a realistic day-to-day assessment in order to survive. He realized that hope was critical to success, but blind optimism was a recipe for disaster (for more, click here).
In entrepreneurialism, understanding this paradox is helpful. If you do not have a mission or if you do not fully believe in your mission, failure is inevitable. People, who are fundamental to success, have to buy in. Leaders have to pull people into the organization for support, and usually, that pull has to be more than monetary. You must have a clear vision, consistent inspiration, and constant hope as well as a consistent belief in you, your organization, and your purpose to achieve success. Without this mindset, failure is inevitable.
But blind faith is equally problematic. Unrealistically believing that sales or revenue will materialize is a consistent issue with start-ups. Yes, I would love for sales to magically appear, but that doesn’t happen simply by hoping. Hope is not a plan. And when those sales fail to materialize, confidence in leadership erodes.
Simple belief in yourself and your vision does not make a company. I remember once helping someone prepare an investor pitch. It went well, but he did not get funding, and the investors gave him clear reasons as to why. We parted. A year later, I ran into him, and he was still working on the same funding round. No change. Just the same pitch. “They cannot say I am not determined,” he said. True, I thought, but the market is clearly telling you no — and they can say you are not listening.
In business, both sides must be embraced. In a recent article in Inc. magazine, Jeff Haden writes that to “Embrace a paradox mindset — embrace opposing demands, opposing perspectives, and seeming contradictions — could result in looking at old problems in entirely new ways.”
While the tendency may be to try and simplify, complex problems are better solved by looking at all sides, embracing the nuances. We want things to be binary, but in reality, that is not the way things work. Things conflict; reason and logic do not always rule, and contradictions are the constant.
And indeed this applies in life and not just business. We live in a paradoxical world. Both those close to us and complete strangers are not simple equations. We love them and hate them. They are neither right nor wrong. The world we live is a paradox.
Even from a spiritual perspective (forgive me as I go there), paradox is consistent. The problem of evil, an ever-debated theological question, is rich with paradox: How can an ever-knowing, ever-powerful, ever-benevolent divine force create a world that contains so much evil? I leave that to your own faith journey to answer, but I would like to close by offering a prayer from my Christian faith tradition that I hope comforts you, regardless of your own faith:
A Prayer for Embracing Paradox— from A Weary World by Kathy Escobar.
God, all these contradictory feelings swirling around are rough on our souls.
Help us hold them all.
Help us remember in the middle of grief, we can still live.
In the middle of despair, we can still hope.
In the middle of chaos, peace is still possible.
In the middle of division, love still lives.
Give us courage to own our paradoxical story. Help us remember yours.
(I am thankful for my Sunday School class at First Presbyterian for inspiring this blog. Forgive me — and just ignore — if this does not comfort you).