Life can be confusing sometimes. We are given so much advice these days in everything from Facebook to magazines to books and courses. The achievement orientation of success: ’do not just sit there, do something’ suggests one route to happiness while the more eastern, meditative orientation of success suggests: ‘Do not just do something, sit there’.
In a world with such paradoxical suggestions for living, how do we manage to move towards a better life and choose the right route? To me, there seem to be three main paradoxes that I have come across in the area of personal and professional development. Let us examine each and find some ideas on how we might handle them.
First, there is what I call the EFFORT paradox. The Effort paradox suggests that, sometimes, the harder we try to achieve something the more likely we are to succeed. Other times, the harder we try, the more likely we are to fail. For example, if we try and try and try again to successfully play the guitar, assuming we have got a good instructor and way of getting feedback; it is very likely that we will, in time, become a skilled guitar player. On the other hand, when we are trying to get to sleep at night, the more we try to sleep the harder we find it. Why is this?
One explanation which I believe is plausible is that in the first case with the guitar, our success and failure does not result in the same level of anxiety. We understand that, to become good, we need to continuously try and fail and make steady progress along the way. However, when trying to sleep, we are trying to achieve a once off goal… to sleep that particular night. We get anxious because we put pressure on ourselves and that pressure causes us to struggle to succeed.
Second, there is the FEELINGS paradox. This is when we are guided by our feelings reliably some of the time and unreliably at other times. For example, we can all bring to mind plenty of examples where we made a decision based upon our ‘gut’ feeling that turned out to be correct later on. Maybe we met someone for the first time and got a sense that we should not trust them. We also have memories I am sure where we based our decisions on our feelings and got it very, very wrong. Perhaps, we fell in love and did a number of cringe worthy things in our efforts to ‘go with the heart’ like so many songs and well intentioned friends advised us. Again, why is this?
Maybe it is because when you use your ‘gut’ feeling, you are taking in information from the outside world and evaluating it with your feelings in the correct decisions. In the decisions we get wrong, it is often as a result of our feelings ‘clouding our judgement’ because we start with our feelings and wants, wishes, desires and fears. They, in turn, sway how we interpret the outside world experience and thus we make decisions that do not always work out for us.
Finally, there is the FOCUS paradox. This is where the more you focus on something; the more you bring it about. Also, the less you focus on something the more it can happen naturally. For example, sometimes in problem solving, when you focus on possible solutions you find yourself getting it much quicker than everyone else as they struggle contemplating the problem itself. Other times, it is only when you stop focusing and instead go for a walk or sleep on it that the answer comes to mind. How do we explain this?
Well, some problems are problems because we have made them into problems. What I mean by this is that we can have a tendency to build a problem by focusing on how bad the problem is and who is to blame etc. Other problems are problems because we have failed to find a solution. These are problems that we have spent time trying to solve but so far have not succeeded. We have not succeeded because we have just been using our conscious and rational mind to try and solve it which is a limited approach. When we instead allow ourselves to take a break, our unconscious mind or imaginative mind begins to work on the issue and, much of they time, provides us with something we never saw before.
So, what can we learn from this? When you are ‘trying’ to do something that will either succeed or fail, take the pressure off and see it as something that we need to master over time. So contemplate attempting to sleep as a skill that you get to master rather than a one time deal.
When you are making a decision, become aware of your feelings first and ask yourself whether or not they will influence you significantly. If they will, it may be better that you rely on the facts and information that you know objectively. If they will not, then your gut may well steer you in the right direction.
When you are solving a problem, ask yourself is this problem something that is a problem because nobody has looked for a solution or because nobody has found a solution. (Also avoid underestimating how many times people do not look for solutions… it happens a lot) If it is the former then focus on the possible solutions. If it is the latter then take a break and let your imagination go to work while you relax.
Managing these paradoxes can hopefully give you a happier life and enable you to live far more successfully as a result.