"Real knowledge is knowing the extent of one's ignorance."— Confucius
I love paradoxes! They energize my mind in the same way that a splash of cold water awakens me when I'm drowsy.
What are paradoxes? Simply put, they're 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. As Carl Jung put it, "Only the paradox comes anywhere near to comprehending the fullness of life."
the shadows are deeper." — Goethe
"The only wealth which will give you
pleasure is the wealth you give away." — Martial
"Only the ephemeral is of lasting value." — Ionesco
"When I came home I expected a surprise and there was
no surprise for me, so, of course, I was surprised." — Wittgenstein
Paradoxes are a wonderful creative discovery tool. For example, in the midst of a difficult problem, the great Danish physicist Niels Bohr said, "How wonderful that we've met with a paradox. Now we have some hope of making some progress." Bohr knew that paradoxes force us to question our basic assumptions and find a different context in which the contradictory ideas make sense. And, in the process, we do some thinking.
ability to entertain two contradictory ideas at the
same time — lies at the heart of creative thinking.
Listed below are some of my favorite paradoxes. Some are humorous, some are off-beat, and some are profound. All, however, make us think — they give us a nice "creative whack." As you read these, you might ask yourself, "What's paradoxical about my life or work? Is there another context that explains this contradiction?"
- Montaigne: "A man who fears suffering is already suffering from what he fears."
- Voltaire: "The superfluous is a very necessary thing."
- Lao-Tzu: "Failure is the foundation of success, and success the lurking place of failure."
- Picasso: "Art is a lie that makes us realize the truth."
- Gauguin: "I shut my eyes in order to see."
- Heraclitus: "A thing rests by changing."
- George Santayana: "Perhaps the only true dignity of man is his capacity to despise himself."
- Bertolt Brecht: "What happens to the hole when the cheese is gone?"
- George Wald: "A physicist is an atom's way of knowing about atoms."
- Hobbes: "Prophecy is many time the principal cause of the events foretold."
- Timothy Connor: "I have such a high regard for the truth that I use it sparingly."
- Chang-Tzu: "Happiness is the absence of striving for happiness."
- Foucault: "All modern thought is permeated by thinking the unthinkable."
- [Judge] Learned Hand: "There is no surer way to misread any document than to read it literally."
- Everett Dirksen: "I am a man of fixed and unbending principles, the first of which is to be flexible at all times."
- Disraeli: "No government can be long secure without formidable opposition."
- Katherine Mansfield: "If you wish to live, you must first attend your own funeral."
- Seneca: The hour which gives us life begins to take it away."
- St. Francis: "It is in giving that we receive, it in pardoning that we are pardoned."
- Eden Philpotts: "The people sensibile enough to give good advice are usually sensible to give none."
- Mill: "Ask yourself whether you are happy and you cease to be so."
- Degas: "Painting is easy when you don't know how, but very difficult when you do."
- Orville Mars: "The little I know I owe to my ignorance."
- Alan Kay: "Any company large enough to have a research lab is too large to listen to it."
- Kahlil Gibran: "The obvious is that which is never seen until someone expresses it simply."
- [Pianist] Arthur Schnabel: "The notes I handle no better than many pianists. But the pauses between the notes, ah, that is where the art resides."
As the philosopher Soren Kierkegaard once put it: "The paradox is the source of the thinker's passion, and the thinker without a paradox is like a lover without feeling."
What do you find paradoxical in your life and work? What paradoxes can you share?