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Opposites

Last week I had some friends and family over for dinner. Before people had arrived I sat with my son Daniel and, while we listened to his band's music on my stereo, we wondered why it was that some people's efforts result in broad public acclaim while others', even when seemingly deserving, do not.  More specifically, as a music fan it perplexed me why his music, that I and an all-too-select group of others have enjoyed, has thus far not found broader appeal while so much lower quality work has.

Soon our thoughts moved on to the question of why we humans even care about acclaim anyway.  I asked Daniel what would be improved in his life if he was the biggest rock star on the planet. Yes, he would have more money but at 22 and being a rather non-material person we both agreed that not much would change in his personal life for the better. And yet, we also both understood that something inexplicable about that level of acclaim would be deeply gratifying.


As the rest of our dinner guests arrived and joined our conversation we dove deeper. It troubled me that acclaim, or success as defined publicly, was important to me and to people. I always believed that great individual expression was born from not caring what others thought of you or your effort, and yet here it was clear that public acclaim indeed felt massively rewarding. Maybe human beings are hard-wired to care about where we stand in the hierarchy of their fellow humans, and to strive constantly to stand out as being superior? Perhaps this is a part of the grand design that insures the continual advancement of the human race.

And seemingly completely at odds with that perspective is that individuality is also a critical component to both greatness and the advancement of humankind. Individuality cannot be expressed without risking the ire of the public, being humiliated and maybe even ostracized. So, to be great means both caring deeply about what others think AND at the same time not caring at all and being courageous enough to go it alone - exact opposites!

It is fascinating that such extreme opposite and contradictory positions can not only co-exist but seem essential to one's living a maximally fulfilling life. How odd!  I know that in business it is important that individuals find the balance of caring deeply enough to do their best work and make their greatest effort, yet not care so much that they would be tempted to compromise their ethical standards to achieve a successful outcome.  When I watch my daughter Julianna compete in gymnastics I know that she must find the energy to try to be great that comes from caring what others think of her, yet when performing she must completely block this out and just perform freely lest she tense up from the resulting pressure and fail miserably.

For me this seeming ambiguity is uncomfortable as I have always been attracted to the concept of absolutes, including the notions of right or wrong, good or bad, friend or foe, and so on. But just as I gain comfort with those simple ideas I am often reminded that life isn't that cut and dry and how living with, and finding the balance between extreme contradiction can also be rewarding, if not even essential.

Caring deeply about our lives because it is all we have makes perfect sense. But also not caring at all about anything also makes sense given how little we or anything we might do matters in the grand scheme of things. In fact, it is the "not caring" perspective that I believe allows us to bounce back from the inevitable adverse moments in our lives. This is when it is so important to not take ourselves or anything too terribly seriously.

Well, in the end, what becomes clear is that even the notion of opposites may be a false one. There may not be room for the word "or" but instead "and."  Everything matters AND nothing does. Public acclaim matters a lot AND it doesn't matter at all.  A life lived with contradictory opposite beliefs is important to being fulfilled AND a life lived according to some basic absolute truths is also essential.

Confusing or clarifying?  Or perhaps "Confusing AND clarifying."

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