Archive for March 5th, 2015


the power of paradox


One of the things I am fond of saying—and I really believe it—is that problems are solutions in disguise. This is another way of saying that the solution to any problem is imbedded in the problem itself—but you have to be looking for it, otherwise it will never present itself.

Albert Rothenberg, a noted researcher on the creative process, has extensively studied the use of opposites in the creative process. He identified a process he terms “Janusian thinking,” a process named after Janus, a Roman God who has two faces, each looking in the opposite direction. Janusian thinking is the ability to imagine two opposites or contradictory ideas, concepts, or images existing simultaneously.

Rothenberg found that geniuses resorted to this mode of thinking quite often in the act of achieving original insights. Einstein, Mozart, Edison, Van Gogh, Pasteur, Joseph Conrad, and Picasso all demonstrated this ability—but there are many others.

It was Vincent Van Gogh who showed in “Bedroom at Arles” how one might see two different points of view at the same time. Pablo Picasso achieved his cubist perspective by mentally tearing objects apart and rearranging the elements so as to present them from a dozen points of view simultaneously. Einstein was able to imagine an object in motion and at rest at the same time, which led him to arrive at the general theory of relativity. Niels Bohr’s claim that light is both a particle and a wave is inextricably self-contradictory.

In fact, Bohr believed that if you hold opposites together, you then suspend your thought and your mind moves to a new level. In his 1996 book, Creativity: The Psychology of Discovery and Invention, professor of psychology and management Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi describes ten contradictory traits that are often present in creative people themselves:

1.  Creative people have a great deal of physical energy, but they’re also often quiet and at rest.

2.  Creative people tend to be smart yet naive at the same time.

3.  Creative people combine playfulness and discipline, or responsibility and irresponsibility.

4.  Creative people alternate between imagination and fantasy, and a rooted sense of reality.

5.  Creative people tend to be both extroverted and introverted.

6.  Creative people are humble and proud at the same time.

7.  Creative people, to an extent, escape rigid gender role stereotyping.

8.  Creative people are both rebellious and conservative.

9.  Most creative people are very passionate about their work, yet they can be extremely objective about it as well.

10. Creative people’s openness and sensitivity often exposes them to suffering and pain, yet also to a great deal of enjoyment.

Since I discovered the power of paradox in my own life, I have found there is no problem that is insurmountable. I have been able to adjust to the changes required by my stroke and remain patient, happy, and productive. When Holly was dying, the insight that her death was an opportunity for more learning and personal growth was a salvation for both of us.

As Csikszentmihalyi says in his book, “creative individuals are remarkable for their ability to adapt to almost any situation and to make do with whatever is at hand to reach their goals.”

For example, yesterday I touched on the problems of a young person dealing with a control-freak parent. By submitting silently, by opening up, and letting go, the subservient person can take the upper hand without the abuser even knowing. By letting anything penetrate one, even the most painful things, it is possible that the child can covertly become a parent to the mother or father as a means to surviving an untenable set of circumstances. It is like the effect the moon has on daytime tides, even though you cannot observe it.

I have told you about this before, but I’ll say it again. One of the wisest things anyone has ever taught me is when Derek King told me he was living as a free person in his mind, even as he was interred in Bradenton FL at one of the most abusive and repressive youth prisons in America. He had turned the tables on his jailers and they didn’t even know it.

How often I have thought about that conversation and derived from it the strength to endure and bear up under any problem that life could throw at me!

More than anything else, what it sometimes takes for creative problem-solving is holding two sometimes-conflicting ideas in your mind at the same time, the resourcefulness to resolve them, and the courage to never give up.


Groove of the Day

Listen to Dawn Richard performing “Tide: The Paradox Effect”


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