Embrace Paradox for Less Stress, More Happiness

A paradox is something that appears to be contradictory, unbelievable, or absurd but may in fact be true. Do less. Accomplish more. These statements present a paradox. Acknowledging, owning, and embracing the paradoxical nature of our lives, the lives of others, and the world can lessen our resistance to change and increase our effectiveness. At its most basic it makes us less tense and more open to happiness.

When I look at my own life and self, I see that I embody a number of paradoxes. Here are a few:

I am shy and solitary, and I love speaking in front of people.

At work, I am completely myself, and I play a role.

I am firm and decisive, and I am cautious and conservative.

I am a businessman, and I am a Zen priest.

I can concentrate for long periods of time, and I’m easily distracted.

I am confident, and I’m extremely vulnerable.

Each of us contains similar paradoxes. The more we look for them, the more we see paradoxes everywhere — in the world of the heart, in the world of work, and in society. Acknowledging and understanding this basic truth can be freeing. What a relief to not have to make ourselves, others, and life fit neatly into some limited idea or framework! Intuitively we know that all humans are complex and contradictory. Embracing our paradoxes not only provides real insights into ourselves and allows for more self-acceptance, it also increases our appreciation of everyone else’s surprising quirks and contradictions.

Sometimes we get caught up trying to resolve internal contradictions, thinking that if we can, we will solve our busyness. Instead, this effort can itself become the cause of our busyness and our scrambled bewilderment. Our complex minds, emotions, and personality traits are simply a rather wonderful fact of human existence. Accepting that can lighten and expand our self-image, making it more fluid. In a strange way it is a more accurate view of life. Embrace paradox and you increase self-acceptance, tolerance of others, and your own possibilities.

Next: Paradox exercise

At a recent workshop for a group of engineering managers, I gave everyone the assignment to describe himself or herself as a paradox. Here is what one had to say:

I strive hard to be lazy.

I’m selfishly compassionate.

I desire to not want.

Sometimes, I’m not myself.

Often, I’m not here, where I am.

I actively engage in nonactivity.

I feel spiritual about my earthly desires.

I sometimes fail at failing.

I make careless mistakes carefully.

Sometimes, my mind is full of nothing.

My own arrogance humbles me.

I’ve become a famous unknown.

I sometimes pity the more fortunate.

If we can embrace and digest the truth of paradox, it can increase tolerance, respect, and understanding, aid conflict resolution, and act as a bridge for solving all sorts of personal, interpersonal, and global differences and problems.

Now it is your turn. List the paradoxes that describe yourself. In what ways do you embody contradiction and inconsistency?

Adapted from LESS: Accomplishing More By Doing Less.


Elisa F.
Elisa F4 years ago

Interesting. Thanks for sharing.

Emma S.
Emma S6 years ago

As a painfully shy actor, I enjoyed this post. I also write plays, and I think it's in people's contradictions that you really find their uniqueness. Certainly I think paradoxical characters are more interesting to play.

Bente S.
Bente S7 years ago

thank you

Gaby Velazquez-vinay

This really is interesting, thanks!

Chinmayee Jog
Chinmayee Jog7 years ago

This is very interesting, I have never actually thought of this. Thanks for sharing :)

Cindy B.
Cindy B7 years ago

Yes, we are creatures of paradox (and so is the "reality" around us). Short of "embracing" paradoxes, we must at least not try to wrap our heads around them so hard, searching for that linear equation and tidy conclusion, that the old gray matter starts to quiver & seize. For actually, paradoxes aren't paradoxes at all but "semantic arguments" between 2 or more of the numerous theoretical orientations (all of 'em valid in their own contexts!) that we embrace to make sense of ourselves and "reality" -- whatever the hell that is.

charmaine c.
Charmaine C7 years ago

Very interesting. Thank you Mark.

Belinda Johnstone

Good post!! Must try this exercise...

Bon L.
Bon L7 years ago

Very interesting. Thanks very much.

Bryony Kirkpatrick

them and how I should behave. Yet I still feel them and sometimes find it hard to alter my behaviour.

I wear my heart on my sleeve and am honest but I also hide my emotions

I love to travel and do but I am a home-body who loves home and gets homesick

I love my independence, seek to be 'free' and have fun, yet I love being in a long-term relationship and appreciate the love and love my partner.

I often think some young lovers etc. are silly, yet I am one and have been with my boyfriend for 3 years (since I was 16) and we are very happy and work well.