On embracing contradictions and your rough edges
A friend of mine has a knack for bringing anyone he meets to life. There’s something about his ability to make a person feel not just seen, but like the most interesting person in the world.
This friend likes people, and that has an incredible power on those in his presence – as Malcolm Gladwell wrote in Six Degrees of Lois, “Lois knows lots of people because she likes lots of people. And all those people Lois knows and likes invariable like her, too, because there is nothing more irresistible to a human being than to be unqualifiedly liked by another.”
Liking people and making them feel seen and alive is a strength. This strength means that my friend is very apt at looking past people’s flaws and poor behaviour and finding the likeable part. But there is a particular tension created when this very strength can make my friend feel like a doormat, or conjure feelings of worthlessness, self-doubt and shame.
“Am I just everyone’s funny little friend who does their bidding?”
Every strength has a flipside that feels like a weakness, and this overlap can create an internal contradiction. Often it’s our traits that make us extraordinary that can make us feel most ordinary.
It works the same way for perceived weaknesses, too – the ordinary can be rendered extraordinary, or the parts we try to change and fix can be our best asset.
For me, there is an overlap between my deep-rooted laziness and my ambitious-overachiever side. I’m good at planning and drafting goals and making lists of everything I want to do, but my inherent laziness means I can often resist taking the first step.
The ambitious-overachiever – the perceived strength – never ceases to come up with things for me to do, but this can easily become a weakness as my mind deludes me into thing it’s all achievable, and I beat myself up when it’s not. This is important for growth and pushing myself creatively, but it’s not so helpful for being realistic and avoiding overwhelm.
The laziness – the perceived weakness – provides a helpful wake-up call. It helps me adjust my expectations and remind myself I’m only human.
Most of us are dealing with the same dichotomy – or multiple contradictions. As performance artist Marina Abramović said in an interview with Debbie Millman, even though our contradictions are part of being human, we are ashamed to expose them.
In the conversation, Marina identifies three of her contradictory selves: the heroic self, the spiritual self, and the ‘bullshit’ self.
“This bullshit self is the one we all try to hide. It’s the self that eats an entire box of chocolates, who binges on bad television and indulges in gossip and materialistic desires. Where are strict self is ‘all’, our bullshit self is ‘nothing.’”
The indulgences of the bullshit self aren’t necessarily ‘bad’ – it’s our shame that says it is. In fact, it’s our bullshit self, or our lazy self, or our doormat self, that is often what makes us most human, most relatable, most intriguing to one another. As Marina said, “If I can show my bullshit then you show me yours and we have a real conversation.”
It’s when we can show all sides and recognise the tension we all have, that we can begin to explore the tension – and explore being human.
Being thoughtful about our contradictions
People connect when sharing or observing one another’s flaws and weaknesses.
As Malcolm Gladwell said in an interview with Tim Ferriss, “Some of the people that you learn most from in those settings are some of the most flawed people. It’s not true that you learn the most from the smartest, most put together people. I think about my college experience, the people who had a lasting impact on me were deeply, deeply flawed people. And their flaws were what almost drew me to them and what I kind of fixated on and found fascinating.”
Gladwell goes on to tell a story about his friend from college who had a library book that was three months overdue – yet he still didn’t take it back because he couldn’t afford the fine. It’s illogical and perhaps a little indolent, but the friend went on to become incredibly successful, proving you can be simultaneously brilliant and indolent. The library book is insignificant, perhaps even interesting.
“Just squaring those two sides to his personality, the idea that he was hapless in some really crucial respects, and, yet, made an incredibly successful place for himself in the world. Figuring that contradiction out took years, and when I did figure it out, it so enhanced my understanding of people and the world and just understanding the ways that he compensated for his haplessness brilliantly,” said Gladwell.
If you’re thoughtful about your contradictions, “it won’t matter one iota,” he adds, and in many cases those weakness turn into strengths in some capacity.
Don’t sand off your edges
When we spot a weakness or flaw, it’s tempting to try to eradicate them or improve ourselves to a point where they are no longer traceable.
But as the overlapping of strengths and weaknesses show, there is no way to rid ourselves of our weakness without also ridding ourselves of our greatest strength.
As Austin Kleon put it in our interview, we don’t need to sand off our edges. Often, the key to creative work is establishing what your two opposing poles are and acknowledging there’s always going to be a tension.
“We're so obsessed with life hacking and with becoming these productive, shining examples of ourselves, but so much of good creative work comes from being a person that has tensions in their life,” he said.
The way you ride out that tension is going to make the meaning for your life, adds Kleon. “For example, I am a person that's like deeply lazy, on the one hand, and on the other hand I am a driven workaholic. For a long time, I was like, "I need to pick one of these or find some kind of balance or whatever." I realised it’s bouncing between these two poles or these modes that really gives my life like that is the meaning of my life – I don't feel the work would be meaningful if I didn't have those deeply lazy moments too.”
Despite the proliferation of self-improvement articles, there is no way to sand off our edges, no hack that will make us perfect, no secret recipe for success. Rather, it’s the highly personal and relative ways individuals navigate the ordinary parts of themselves that gives our lives a brighter edge.
It’s about learning how to accept both sides of yourself and seeing what kind of wonderful things can be cultivated from there.
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