Two men went to a priest to resolve a dispute.
Having listened to the first, the priest said, “You are right.” When the second man insisted on being heard, the priest listened to him and said, “You’re also right.”
The priest’s wife was overhearing the conversation from the next room. She called out, “But they can’t both be right!” The priest paused for a moment, reflected on what the wife said and then concluded, “And you’re right too.”
How wonderful that we’ve met with a paradox, observed Great Danish physicist Niels Bohr, “Now we have a hope of making some progress.” Bohr wasn’t the only one who thrived on contradictions. It’s said that Einstein discovered relativity by way of resolving an apparent conflict between electromagnetism and mechanics.
A physicist is only too happy, writes Carlo Rovelli in his book Seven Brief Lessons on Physics, “when he finds a conflict of between successful theories: it’s an extraordinary opportunity.”
It’s counterintuitive but conflicts and contradiction often lead to better understanding and even new discoveries. So much so that, being consistent too long can be hazardous to your decision-making process.
One of the smartest businessman and thinkers of our time, Jeff Bezos, in answer to one question, said that consistency of thought isn’t particularly a positive trait. In his opinion, it’s perfectly healthy and even encouraged to have an idea tomorrow that contradicted your idea today. Smartest people are constantly revising their understanding, reconsidering a problem they thought they’d already solved. They’re open to new points of view, new information, new ideas, contradictions, and challenges to their own way of thinking. Bezos argues that people who are right a lot of the time are people who often changed their minds.
What trait signified someone who was wrong a lot of the time? Someone obsessed with details that only support one point of view. If someone can’t climb out of the details, and see the bigger picture from multiple angles, they’re often wrong most of the time.
Does it mean that one shouldn’t have a strong point of view? No. It means that one should consider his or her point of view as temporary. In other words, have strong opinions but hold them loosely.
Everything that mankind knows today is either wrong or incomplete. That’s a strong statement but it has been true for thousands of year of Homo Sapiens’ history. Fortunately, that’s where all the progress came from.
Yuval Harari in his masterpiece, Sapiens, writes –
Unlike the laws of physics, which are free of inconsistencies, every man-made order is packed with internal contradictions. Cultures are constantly trying to reconcile these contradictions, and this process fuels change.
Ever since the French Revolution, people throughout the world have gradually come to see both equality and individual freedom as fundamental values. Yet the two values contradict each other. Equality can be ensured only by curtailing the freedoms of those who are better off. Guaranteeing that every individual will be free to do as he wishes inevitably short-changes equality. The entire political history of the world since 1789 can be seen as series of attempts to reconcile this contradiction.
Such contradictions are an inseparable part of every human culture. In fact, they are culture’s engines, responsible for the creativity and dynamism of our species. Just as when two clashing musical notes played together force a piece of music forward, so discord in our thoughts, ideas and values compel us to think, reevaluate and criticise. Consistency is the playground of dull minds.
If tensions, conflicts and irresolvable dilemmas are the spice of every culture, a human being who belongs to any particular culture must hold contradictory beliefs and be riven by incompatible values…Had people been unable to hold contradictory beliefs and values, it would probably have been impossible to establish and maintain any human culture.
If, say, a Christian really wants to understand the Muslims who attend that mosque down the street, he shouldn’t look for a pristine set of values that every Muslim holds dear. Rather, he should enquire into the catch-22s of Muslim culture, those places where rules are at war and standards scuffle. It’s at the very spot where the Muslims teeter between two imperatives that you’ll understand them best.
A contradiction is a reason why humans stay curious and push the boundaries of current knowledge. Conflicts stimulate thinking. It’s like a splash of cold water that startles you first but it also awakens you when you are feeling drowsy. That’s the paradox of progress.
Roger von Oech, in his book A Whack on the Side of the Head, writes –
[Paradoxes] are statements that initially seem self-contradictory, but which after we’ve thought about them for a bit, can be seen to express a truth. Sometimes this truth is funny, sometimes it’s a bit weird, and sometimes it can be profound…Paradoxes are a wonderful creative discovery tool…The very act of ‘seeing the paradox’ is at the crux of creative thinking – the ability to entertain two different, often contradictory, notions at the same time.
Most people don’t like contradictions because they cause mental discomfort. Psychologists have given it a name – cognitive dissonance. To avoid cognitive dissonance human mind has a tendency to steer clear of contradictions.
As a result, those who have strongly held opinions are usually free of contradictions. They don’t find inconsistencies because they haven’t thought deeply about both the sides of an argument.
French artist, Edgar Degas once said –
Painting is easy when you don’t know how, but very difficult when you do.
I think it’s true for investing too.
Imagine you find a great business which is available for very cheap. But the market doesn’t look cheap. What should you do? Do you ignore the market or do you focus on the market and ignore the opportunity?
An investor is always surrounded by such contradictions. But such contradictions are the opportunities to refine your decision-making abilities.
I’ll leave you with a thought from philosopher Soren Kierkegaard who said –
The paradox is the source of thinker’s passion and the thinker without a paradox is like a lover without feeling.