Winner is he who manages Life’s Paradoxes well
Dr. Madan Tripathy
In the journey of life, we are flooded with a bountiful of paradoxes and a plethora of contradictions. We can’t wish them away nor can we escape from them. Paradoxes are here to stay. In fact, they are both sides of the same coin and meant to co-exist together. We will be the winner if and only if we are flexible enough to manage them as and when we encounter them. As once said by John Brown – “First stage is Knowing the Truth, second is Not Knowing the Truth and the third is realizing the Paradox.” Ha Ha Ha.
In my article “Life is all about Managing Paradoxes” published earlier, we have discussed about two most important paradoxes of life – “The Happiness Paradox” and “The Problem Paradox”. We will discuss three more important paradoxes in life in this article. You can go through the earlier article by visiting
- THE PARADOX OF CHOICES
An interesting paradox is the Paradox of Choices: “The more choices you have, the less satisfied you are with each one.”
We are unanimous that Choice is good. We all like to have more choices; whether it is a pizza or an ice-cream or purchase of a tooth-paste or a T-shirt from the departmental store or a mutual fund in the financial market or a health insurance policy or making important decisions of life like which vocational course to pursue or which job / company to join or even in selection of the spouse. Having a lot of choices give us a sense of control and absence of sufficient choice constrains us. So long fine. So, if choice is good, then it is a simple matter of logic that more choices must be always better. But, in reality, it is not so & that is the paradox. It may be logically true, but it is psychologically false. Research indicates that too much choices lead to confusion leading to indecision; sometimes to bad decisions & also sometimes to dissatisfaction over decisions already taken, irrespective of its validity & utility.
Why so? Let us say we have too many choices. All of us have a general tendency to opt for the best choice. This creates the complications. We get confused & the more we analyze we get still more confused about which is the best. We become constrained to choose one over the other. The other grass looks greener. It has happened with me at least a couple of times when I had gone shopping for jeans and come back empty-handed; not because I did not find the right brand or right colour or right fit or right texture; but simply because I could not decide in favour of any particular pair. Anytime I narrowed in on one pair, I felt that another pair could probably be a better fit. Such situations are called “Choice Paralysis” in psychology. This is because too many choices create too high opportunity costs. We all hate losing. So, if deciding in favour of Choice X also amounts losing the choice Y; method of selection, in effect, gets converted to a method of rejection and we have a very difficult time in deciding which one to lose. This often leads us to decide in favour of none, so that we do not lose any. Sounds familiar? I hope so.
Studies have also indicated that too many choices, more often than not, leads us to be less, not more, satisfied once we actually decide. People tend to think that one of plethora of other choices available to them could have been a better choice than the choice already made & in effect become dissatisfied. There is a nagging feeling that we could have done better. Nagging feelings get magnified if a family member, a friend or a close acquaintance makes a simple mention of one or two positives in a comparator.
Consider how you purchased a new mobile set 25 years back. If you had enough money, you simply went to the store where there were barely a couple of models from which to select. You purchased the one you could afford & that’s it. You won the game. You were happy with your possession. Though your choices were limited, so were your expectations. If you were subsequently not happy with your set for any reason whatsoever, you had never blamed yourself as it was the fault of either the model or the manufacturer; but fault never points out to your inability to take the right decision.
Conversely, consider purchasing a new smart mobile set now. You can go to a nearby mobile store or shop around online stores at Amazon, Best Buy, Flipkart or Mobilestores etc. You can examine different operating systems, corresponding sale prices, screen resolutions, different screen sizes, camera features, network connection features, battery features, display types, RAM capacity, different smart-app considerations, features of finger-print sensor and other sensors and so on and on. You will now literally have some thousands of alternatives to choose from. Then you decide in favour of one set & purchase it. And if, for some reason you are not satisfied with the set, whom do you blame? Obviously, only yourself! You had hundreds of options available to make a choice & you were expected to find the one that is the best match for you. With too many choices, there is risk of choice paralysis, confusion & dissatisfaction. As rightly said by Barry Schwartz in The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less– “Learning to choose is hard. Learning to choose well is harder. And learning to choose well in a world of unlimited possibilities is harder still, perhaps too hard.”
But, the interesting feature is what applies to Mobile set is also applicable to most of our daily use materials including TV sets, Air Conditioner, Washing Machine, Gas Stove, dress materials, wallet and even simpler things like tooth-paste, hair oil, soap & what not. It is understandable if we struggle to take a decision for choosing a life-mate or a health-plan or a career decision or a residential flat, which may be big decisions in life. But, it is really ridiculous if such indecisions and the stress associated with it disturbs us even for trivial stuff like purchasing a shaving gel or a tooth-brush. This is simply because the Paradox of Choices does not discriminate between decisions which are important or not so important or trivial. Psychologists studied this phenomenon in a greater detail and in fact have come to the conclusion that our brain does not do a decent job in realizing what is important and what is trivial while making a choice. It simply goes by the number of options available; time and attention given is directly proportional to the number of available choices.
Then, what is the remedy?
If more choices create more problems for us, then is it that limited choice is preferable? You know the answer. It is NO. The trick is obviously to find the middle ground that enables you to benefit from some variety of options, but without being paralyzed by it. Maximizing strategy is a decision strategy that comes naturally to us, where you seek and accept the best option that is available. But, this is a daunting task as we have seen above, and more so when the choices are too many. Maximizing could be a welcome strategy when the decision is really important for life. For others, Psychologists suggest for a “satisficing” option instead of “maximizing” option. Satisficing is a combination of two words – satisfy and suffice. Instead of scanning all options until finding the perfect one or maximizing one, one should first decide the most important need or few important needs and should go for the first option that meets a given important need or select the option that seems to address most needs. This will reduce the possibility of choice paralysis and dissatisfaction. In the words of Barry Schwartz, “To satisfice is to settle for something that is good enough and not worry about the possibility that there might be something better.”
- THE PARADOX OF FAILURE – If you want to succeed in life, you must increase your failure rate.
All of us want success in life. All of relish the feeling associated with success. On the other hand, none of us want to fail. Failure is terrible, it pains. It leaves a nasty scar physically & emotionally. We don’t like the negative feelings that go with failure and so naturally we tend to avoid failure. So, in addition to our urge for achieving success, we have equally strong urge, if not more, to avoid failure. Our mind is conditioned from our childhood by the Carrot & Stick Principle – positive reinforcements for being right and negative reinforcements for being not right. But between both, we give more importance to avoiding pain rather than to seek pleasure. As such, most of us both consciously and subconsciously avoid failure more than seeking success. Our fear of failure discourages us to try new things as there is always a possibility of failure associated with the unknown. But, if we analyze our fear of failure; we can very well understand that most of us & also most of the times get scared about things which might be non-existent – the typical imaginary fear; think a lot about what might happen, what could go wrong and in the process mostly go for the easiest option – the path of least resistance and avoid taking any risk whatsoever. Fine; in the process, we are able to avoid failure; but the paradox is that it also constricts our success rate. As rightly said by Paulo Coelho: – “There is only one thing that makes a dream impossible to achieve: the fear of failure.”
Unless we take risk, we can’t try a new thing. To succeed in life, you need to be prepared to fail, because success can’t be guaranteed. Success is built on the pillars of failure. Failure is the stepping stone to success. Success and failure are intertwined. If you allow the fear of failure to rule over you, it will not allow you to try and it will eventually limit your opportunities for success.
Failure hurts, but instructs. It shows us the direction to move towards success. Failure opens our eyes to new possibilities not yet known to us. Failure is essential for growth. Growth is attained only when we do something outside our comfort zone, fail, learn, get up, correct and move on. It is much like a child learns to walk; falling down numerous times, laughing, getting up and trying again & again & again, till one day he starts walking and running on his feet.
Mistakes & failures are normal. Regard them as chance to improve. There is no invention worth the name which is not preceded by a series of failures. Edison has failed 10,000 times before finally succeeding to find a suitable element for light bulb. And after every such failure, his thought was – now I am one step closer to success. Dyson failed 5125 times before he developed the bag-less vacuum cleaner. All of us are blessed with the power to turn our failures to success. Life only hands over different situations to us. It is upto us what to make out of those situations. We can choose to get caught in the failure trap, pity ourselves and blame lady luck and get sucked into it. Or we can investigate the reasons of failure, look failures through an analytical lens, learn from our mistakes, re-orient ourselves and move on for success. Choice is ours.
As rightly said by Robert T. Kiyoski – “Winners are not afraid of losing. But losers are. Failure is part of the process of success. People who avoid failure also avoid success.”
- THE SOLUTIONS PARADOX – The best ideas for solution of a problem surface unexpectedly when you are thinking of something else, not about the problem per se.
Generally, when we try to figure out the solution for a problem, we find several alternatives by methodical & analytical thinking and decide the best by following a logical method of elimination and selection. This may be true to a great extent for mundane & routine problems. But, the best solution for complicated, important & naughty issues rarely come this way. The significant ideas come, paradoxically, neither through tables, charts & graphs, nor when you focus on finding out ideas by being calm, shutting down all distractions, sitting down with your laptop opening a blank page or a writing pad to note down and make conscious efforts for the same. Rather it comes spontaneously when you are not thinking about it. You know it yourself. There are occasions when you are concentrating on an issue, really working hard systematically and methodically to come up with a solution and still not succeeding. Then suddenly, the “AaH” moment comes quite unexpectedly. When you are completely dissociated from the issue and you are on your morning walk or taking a shower or watching a movie or going for a long drive or doing something else absolutely unconnected, suddenly and absolutely unexpectedly, a flash of insight surfaces from nowhere and you say, “Aah! This is it. Now I know the answer. ” That is the paradox we are talking about.
All of us are aware how Archimedes discovered the principle of floating bodies when he was in the bath tub and shouted “Eureka”, how Newton discovered the Law of Gravity, when he was in the garden & observed the fall of apple, the story how Alexander Fleming discovered penicillin accidentally, how Inventor Philo T. Farnsworth purportedly came up with the idea for television while plowing a potato field and so on. Similarly, the invention of pacemaker by Wilson Greatbatch, the discovery of Pap Smear (standard cancer screening test for all women), invention of Microwave by Percy Spencer, discovery of radium by Pierre & Marry Curie and many more owe it to ideas that suddenly flashed while doing something else. Even a number of famous writers & poets including William Shakespeare & our own Ravindranath Tagore also confessed that ideas about most of their plots have occurred to them while they were doing something else other than consciously thinking about the plot. Such insights, such inspirations have contributed to the advancement of humanity from homo-sapiens (the cave-men) to what we are today and is still on the go.
Lot of research, by psychologists and neuro-scientists, has gone into this phenomenon of how & why these insights happen, popularly called the “Eureka Effect”. To discuss them at length is beyond the scope of this paper. To say simply, when you are deeply focused on a task, your rational conscious mind tends to wander around one or a few different strategies and is more likely to filter out unconventional ideas for solutions. When you take a break, you are consciously doing nothing about the problem and as such your conscious mind is not active on the issue. But, your conscious mind is only a tiny part of your brain. However, your sub-conscious mind, the major part, has been struggling all along to solve your problem. Now that your conscious mind has become inactive, your sub-conscious mind eventually finds one or several ideas cling together and succeeds in planting the same in your conscious mind.
What to do about it?
I do not advocate for not concentrating on the problem at hand, not doing your data collection, analysis, brainstorm for ideas and only relax and pray for the insight to flash in your head as the significance solution. This can and will never happen. All your hard work, methodical & systematic thinking are the backdrop for the insight to happen. Don’t worry. Your efforts have not gone in vain. Your subconscious mind takes all these inputs into consideration and makes the right connection, not visible to you earlier. As such, what is important is when the task is really hard, your mind is over-worked and really tired, give it some break and relax for a while. After all, intermittent breaks from your work are essential to keep you motivated and they give the necessary space to your mind to have a fresh look at the issues banging against it, instead of going round and round the mulberry bush.
Another important point is that insight is not the domain of a privileged few like Archimedes or Graham Bell or Aristotle. In fact, all of us get insights from time to time. There occurs spark, may be very tiny and fragile; it comes and goes and the trick is to capture it whenever it happens.
At the end, the final word from Sri Sri Ravi Shankar – “The world is full of paradoxes and life is full of opposites. The art is to embrace the opposites, accommodate the paradoxes and live with a smile.
Well, now let us give it a well-deserved break. In my next post, we will discuss some more paradoxes of life. GOOD BYE till then.