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Make paradox work for you

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Idea Journal Weekly 3

May 1 · Issue #241 · View online

We combine 3 ideas to help you think differently and be more creative.


Summary: Contradictions show up in all aspects of life: from falling in love to designing useful products. The key is to be aware of such contradictions and make them work in your favor. This issue offers a few ideas to help.
(~5 min read)

#1. Navigate the happiness paradox
In an interview on The Knowledge Project podcast, chess master and investor Adam Robinson says one of the key life lessons he’s learned is that the secret to happiness is to be fully engaged in your life.
He points out that if someone were to ask him during the interview if he was happy, he wouldn’t know. His attention is focused on the conversation itself, and not his feelings about how the conversation is going.
For Robinson, the paradox of the most important things in life – happiness, love, success – is that you can’t actively look for them.
“If you’re looking for happiness, you’re not doing what you need to do to be happy. If you’re looking for love, you’re not being lovable. If you’re looking for success, you’re not doing whatever it is you need to do to be successful.”
Happiness, like other desirable states, is a by-product – something that catches us by surprise.
In Robinson’s view, if you’re feeling a negative emotion like doubt, fear, frustration, or loneliness, it’s a sign that you need to redirect your attention.
Whenever Robinson is feeling such negative emotions, he asks himself: Where should my attention be right now?
The answer to that question, and his “great revelation of 2016,” is that there are only two places his attention should be: either on the task at hand, or on others.
#2. The customer isn't always right
Entrepreneur and investor Paul Graham writes in his essay Design and Research that effective design starts with the question, Who is this for and what do they need from it?
For example, a good architect doesn’t begin by creating a design that she then imposes on the users. Instead, she studies the intended users to figure out what they need.
As Graham points out, there’s a crucial difference between designing for what people want versus what they need.
Working as a designer doesn’t mean simply making whatever the client asks for: “This varies from field to field in the arts, but I don’t think there is any field in which the best work is done by the people who just make exactly what the customers tell them to.”
But isn’t the customer always right?
Not necessarily.
The customer is always right in the sense that the measure of good design is how well it works for the user. For example, if you write a novel that everyone finds boring, or make a chair that’s uncomfortable to sit in, then you’ve failed.
But in order to make something that works well for the user, you can’t just make what the user tells you to because users don’t know what all the choices are, and they’re often mistaken about what they really want.
So what should you do?
For Graham, the answer to this paradox is that you have to design for the user, but you have to design for what the user needs, and not just what he says he wants.
How a doctor works is a helpful analogy. As a doctor, you can’t just treat a patient’s symptoms. When a patient tells you his symptoms, it’s your job to figure out what’s actually wrong with him, and then treat that.
#3. Compare down as well as up
Writing on his blog, entrepreneur Derek Sivers suggests that in a competition, the person who comes in third place should be happier than the one who comes in second place.
Picture the end of a race in the Olympics, where the three winners are standing on the podium: the gold, the silver, and the bronze.
Now imagine what it feels like to be the silver medalist: if you were a second faster, you could have won the gold. Filled with envy, you would keep comparing yourself to the gold winner.
But as the bronze medalist, you would have a completely different perspective: if you were a second slower, you wouldn’t have won anything. You would be thrilled that you were an Olympic medalist, and got to stand on the podium at all.
The lesson is that if you find yourself burning with envy or resentment, it’s better to think like a bronze medalist than silver: “Instead of comparing up to the next-higher situation, compare down to the next-lower.”
Sivers borrows the medalist metaphor from psychologist Barry Schwartz’s book The Paradox of Choice, and suggests that it can be applied to a range of everyday situations.
Take any marketplace where things vary according to price – for example, real estate, the stock market, or even salaries.
If you find yourself comparing the deal you received to the best possible deal, and being upset at the difference, try instead to compare your deal to the worst possible one, and feel grateful for that difference.
Sivers acknowledges that the bronze-medalist perspective may not apply to every competitive scenario.
When you’re ambitious and trying to be the best at some specific skill, it’s useful to be dissatisfied, like the silver medalist comparing up to the gold. You can use that feeling as motivation to practice and improve.
But, as Sivers puts it, “most of the time, you need to be more grateful for what you’ve got, for how much worse it could have been, and how nice it is to have anything at all.”
Quote of the week
“How wonderful that we have met with a paradox. Now we have some hope of making progress.”
- Attributed to physicist Niels Bohr in the biography Niels Bohr, by author Ruth Moore
Idea Journal
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