Avoiding a Life of Regret: The Paradox Map

Frameworks and Tools
"The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function"
- F Scott Fitzgerald

A Paradox Map details the positives AND negatives of each opposing idea.  Take the paradox of stress and tranquility: Stress actually has POSITIVE aspects at times. Tranquility has NEGATIVE qualities at times.   Stress at its best is stimulating, challenging, and motivating. Stress at its worst can be distressing and overwhelming and lead to feelings of irritability. The promise of tranquility is relaxation, replenishment, and rejuvenation. But over time, tranquility can be boring, unstimulating  and unchallenging. 

For example, many fail in designing their retirement because they are under the “stress as problem-to-solve” illusion. Retirements are often designed to solve for relaxation and the removal of stressors.   After an initial period of relaxation, they inevitably feel the bad parts of Tranquility. Without the paradox lens, they don’t know they need to move on the map (to the positive side of stress). They are in the negativity of Tranquility. This is the Tranquility Trap.

Stress is also commonly mistaken for a problem to solve versus a paradox to manage. People work hard to achieve success and think that there will be no stress on the other side of that achievement.  I know I certainly had that mindset. I thought as soon as I had a successful 8  figure exit, I would no longer have stress.  But stress is not a one-time problem to solve. That is an illusion.

A problem to be solved is something that can be done ONCE. Think of it like catching a ball. It might be a difficult catch. But, once the ball is caught, the problem is solved.  A paradox to be managed is an ongoing challenge between two seemingly opposing concepts.  A paradox can’t be solved once and be over with. 

Think of it like a juggler. The motions required to work with paradox need to be ongoing.

If stress were a problem to solve, one could move it from the negative quadrant of one side to the positive of the other and stay in this place forever.  But in a paradox, you don’t get to stay in the positive place forever.  That’s not how paradoxes work. Eventually, that tranquility turns into boredom.

So how do you manage a paradox?

Masters of paradox move to the opposite pole’s positive corner. Boredom is proactively replaced with challenge (good stress). Then as the challenge builds, more stress transitions into distress. Until rest and rejuvenation begin the cycle again.  Masters of Paradox avoid the Tranquility trap. Well-designed practices move you through the Paradox Map in a shape that looks like an infinity symbol.

To avoid this trap, practice managing this paradox DURING your career. Sustained energy is sourced by managing the stress-to-tranquility paradox with these reflection questions:

  • What helps you identify when you are experiencing the negative aspects of  Stress and  Tranquility?
  • When you are in the negative corners of the Paradox Map, what helps you Restore and Bring you needed challenges?

A great retirement will include relaxation AND thoughtful challenge, for example. And the best work of your career will involve intense work AND cycles of needed rest.

Working with a paradox is not easy. But it can be more approachable with clear awareness and a good map.  Determine if the challenge you face is like catching a ball once (Problem) or requires ongoing juggling (Paradox).  If juggling is required, draw a Paradox Map. Identify the processes, rituals and checkpoints you will need to move you through the map to effectively work with your paradox.

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