Think Bigger

Why we constantly contradict ourselves (and don’t always realize it)

A friend has been having relationship woes and wanted to talk it out with me.

The conundrum is that she WANTS to be in a committed relationship with someone she’s been seeing. Yet, according to her, the proper course of action toward this goal is to act like she doesn’t care, let this person see other people, and bide her time for the “right moment” to talk about next steps.

In a sense, she has rationalized decisions that don’t help her be in a relationship, despite her wanting to be in one. And I couldn’t help but wonder: Was she even aware that she’s created a situation that is opposite the one she wants?

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The conversation with my friend made me realize that she’s not the only one in her paradox bubble. We ALL subconsciously live in our own paradoxes, where the conscious pursuit of something we want can, paradoxically, often take us further away from it. A few examples…

  • The more you talk about doing something, the less likely you are to do anything.
  • The more you try to forcibly convince someone of your stance in an argument, the less likely they are to be convinced.
  • The more you try to hide your insecurities, the more insecure you feel.

And so on.

The most insidious thing about paradoxes is exactly what makes them paradoxical: We’re not aware these things are happening until they’re pointed out to us. And we’re all like, “Aha, so that’s what’s going on!” And even when we are made aware, they’re not something we can readily address as if we were simply cleaning up a mess.

My friend wasn’t really aware of how unproductive the things she was telling herself were to her needs and wants. She lived in a paradox where the more she wanted to be close to someone, the further away she drove them. When it comes to business, you — yes, you too! — are probably living in a number of paradoxes that are keeping you from making the progress you want.

Below are a few paradoxes that I repeatedly come across in my own business (along with watching many others grow theirs) that I’ve found to be true.

Paradox 1: The more time we think we have, the less we actually value it

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When it’s time to go from doing nothing to doing something — like investing in a course to be more stylish, learning to play the guitar, or starting that side hustle — we justify inertia by saying to ourselves, “I’ll get to it later when I have more time.” For some reason we can convince ourselves that we’ll magically have more time in the vague future. (This goes hand in hand with everyone’s favorite mind trap: procrastination.)

You know that time is a finite resource just like money. But you wouldn’t recklessly throw down $800 on Pokémon trading cards and assume that there’ll always be another $800 tomorrow in the same way you assume you’ll have more time the next day, after you’ve decided to spend an hour or two alphabetizing your vinyl record collection.

And still we willingly squander so much of our time with procrastination and empty promises with ourselves that we’ll get to things later. Why do we think that the passage of time doesn’t seem to apply to us, like we’re immortal?

The sooner we understand that there’s never going to be enough time for us to do everything, the better off we’ll be. And that’s OK. The most important thing you can do is to figure out what’s truly most important to you and make time for those things and only those things. 

Paradox 2: The more we rely on motivation, the more motivation will fail us

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How many times have you told yourself that you need to get something done but “you don’t feel like doing it”?

I say that to myself about 135 times per day.

The truth is, I rarely feel like doing anything, including starting to write this article (sorry, boss — number 136). But what about that oh-so-wonderful motivational spark?

Sure, it kindles me … only sometimes, usually at an inconvenient time, like when I’m away from the computer (alas!). But if I waited around for that spark, you wouldn’t be reading this article at all. Like, ever.

Too often we rely on motivation to move us to do that one thing, when we really just need to take action in spite of feeling motivated or not. It’s not that motivation doesn’t exist or is useless. It’s that leaning on it as a crutch MIGHT get you started in the short term, but does little to keep you going in the long term. As Pablo Picasso said:

“Motivation exists, but it has to find you working.”

If you don’t ever get around to staring at a blank screen to write or anything, you don’t give your muse a chance to thrive. And to go from saying “I don’t feel like doing it” to saying “I didn’t feel like doing it, but I did it anyway,” I encourage you to dig a little deeper to find why you want to do that thing with the why exercise.

If you want to start your own business, perhaps your initial why to do so was to simply escape your office environment or to make extra money every month to balance expenses in a high-cost area. Those surface-level whys might get you started in the short term and are great, but if you’re struggling to stay motivated, dredging up a deeper, more concrete why can create powerful motivation from within to help you go further with your goals.

Here’s an example of how you do the why exercise. It’s better to have a pen and paper for this.

  1. Clearly state what you want. Let’s say you want to be able to quit your job in one year. Ask why.
  2. You might say that you want to stop doing the three-hour commute, which saps all of your energy. OK, ask why again.
  3. Then you say that you want to free up more time.
  4. Again, ask why: What would more time do? And you might say, “So that I can be happier and more fulfilled spending it with family and doing the things that really matter to me.”

Remember that why, and the next time you feel like you’re struggling to see the results of your work, refer to your why again.

You’ll be glad you did.

I have mine written in the form of “Why not you?” set as my desktop background on my Mac so I can’t miss it.

Paradox 3: The more we know what to do, the less likely we are to actually do

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Knowledge doesn’t beget action. Action begets action.

I know you know this, but when you continue to only buy courses, read a bunch of books and articles, or attend seminar after seminar, you’re able to rationalize to yourself that you ARE already taking action — by hoarding more knowledge about the thing you already know you need to do (instead of doing any real work toward that thing you know you need to do).

Information has diminishing returns. It can’t exist in a vacuum in your mind, it needs to be road-tested in the real world.

It feels good because you create the mere perception of progress through “learning” more when no progress has actually been made. And so it’s easy to find yourself stuck in this Groundhog Day–esque loop of always learning but never quite applying. The way forward is to ask yourself this question:

What’s the smallest, most feasible, simplest step for ME to put this into action?

Chip and Dan Heath, authors of Switch: How to Change When Change Is Hard, explained that a major driving force behind inaction is oftentimes a lack of clarity on the action steps you can take to move forward. It’s also possible that what you think is easy and straightforward is actually too “big” to wrap your head around, so the action needs to be broken down further.

For example, you know that the first step to starting a business is to first come up with an idea.

Sounds simple, but the idea of coming up with an idea itself is still unclear and prone to more questions. How do you know if your idea is any good? What if your idea has been done? What ideas are worth exploring? Ugh!

The first real action step is to write down 15-20 ideas — good or bad. It doesn’t matter right now. What matters is that you spend the time to write 20 solid ideas as a jumping off point and DO something that can lead to the next step. And the next step thereafter.  

The uncomfortable truth is, if you’re not actively putting time AND effort to taking the first steps to doing this supposedly important thing that you are constantly learning about — maybe it just isn’t a priority now. If that’s true, that’s OK, too. Just be real with yourself.  

Paradox 4: The more we want things to be easy, the less satisfied we are with things that are easy

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Ironically, we think we want things, like a house or a relationship, to be free of charge and/or gotten with little to no hard work on our part, but in the end, we value them less.

Marketers have known for a long time that they can nudge us to want something by using language like “Limited time offer!” or “You have five days to claim your prize!” that imply scarcity. But when we perceive things to be in abundance, or in this case “free” or “easy,” we take them for granted, thinking we have access to them at any time.

It’s the difference between getting a free t-shirt from a convention and paying $80 for a shirt that you had to fight tooth and nail with the Black Friday horde. The former I would wear as PJs or use as a rag to dry my car; the latter I would build a shrine for and have a freakin’ meltdown if I’d spilled even a drop of coffee on it. *stares at limited edition Harry Potter shirt*

We think that we work hard for something in order to yield a specific outcome, but if we’re real with ourselves, it’s the struggle of striving and working for that outcome that is more satisfying than getting the outcome itself.

What this means for you: Love the hell out of the struggle because it’s normal and it’ll suck while you go through it. But you come out the other end happier and more fulfilled. And yes, I know that’s easier said than done. But then again, so is creating a business from thin air.

Paradox 5: The more we’re afraid to fail, the more we’re likely to fail (to improve)

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Nobody likes sucking at stuff. Ironically, we need to suck at something at first in order to get better at it. We know this; we just HATE it. Rather, our ego despises not being anything but incredible. And the more you let your ego fiercely hang on to maintain this perception of never “failing,” the more likely you are to fail at…

…starting your business.

…allowing enough trust in yourself to know what you’re fully capable of.

…learning the mistakes that will let you grow.

Jake the Dog

Wise words, Jake the Dog.

The paradox here is that success comes from failure. When you fail, you learn to improve, and in order to improve, you must fail.

And here’s the other thing: Nobody remembers your failures. The internet is a big place. If Entrepreneur X can have a second act, so can you after your $1,000 launch flops.

Paradox 6: The more you wait for things to “happen,” the less likely anything actually happens

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In another GrowthLab article, we pointed out that many successful people aren’t necessarily more special than you or me, nor do they rely purely on getting lucky. Rather they work long enough and with enough consistent effort to be able to catch what LOOKS to us like a lucky break.

What’s more, they’ve cultivated the skills to create, recognize, and act on their luck. This means that they constantly put themselves in situations that increase their chances of meeting the right people or coming across awesome opportunities. Plus, they’re persistent.

For example, when I got my second article published in The New York Times, many wondered what I did differently. Did I wait for them to find little ol’ me and ask me to write that particular article for them? That would’ve been an incredible honor, but the reality was that I had made the huge effort to find the right editors, come up with a solid idea that I knew (from experience) that they’d like, and pitched them (followed by eight months of persistent follow-ups).

Luck is less “luck” and more about probability: throw enough darts at the bull’s-eye, even if you have terrible aim, and one of them will eventually stick.

But also, you gotta throw all those darts yourself, man.

It for sure would be nice to just have things “happen to us.” For us to just sit there and suddenly have thousands of new visitors happen upon our blog. For us to create a product and have tons of customers want to throw money at us for it.

Continuing to believe that happenstance will start or grow your business isn’t just harmful. It’s the stuff of fairy tales that implies you are refusing to take matters into your own hands — whether that’s getting people to read your blog by guest posting or to buy your product by doing your due diligence in researching and then creating the best damn possible product that your customers actually need.

And that’s why things haven’t been happening even when you so wish they would.

Luck can play a small part. But you gotta throw those darts, man.

* * *

I’m curious to hear: How many of these paradoxes resonate with you? Share your beliefs and story in the comments below. I’d love to read them!

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There Are 8 Comments

 

Hey Stephanie – Number #3 hit home for me!

“The more we know what to do, the less likely we are to actually do”

I have experienced this in a bunch of situations including building my own business where I have bought course after course and haven’t taken much action at all.

In fact, in my experience, the more I hoard knowledge, the more investment I feel I have made to making something a success and hence, it better not fail! Which paradoxically makes it even harder to take action, which ultimately means failure.

It’d be interesting to see if this resonates with anyone else?

The paradox of knowledge. Even though I know about it, I’m still waiting for something.

I read 50 books about entrepreneurship/marketing and I am just in the process of moving into a new apartment and I “ordered” myself that as soon as I move to a new place, I have to start working on my business.

That’s the plan- we’ll see how it works out 😀

I can resonate with failing several times before having successes. My first 2 video game projects were pretty bad in my view (even then, some people do like them) but have gotten much better, as I learned new techniques to improve.

I also used to fail pretty badly at audio mixing, but I also improved by learning new techniques and is now something that people pay me to do.

I have struggled with each of those 6 paradoxes you mentioned. Thanks for your observations – and your quirky sense of humour. 🙂

I loved this article. The paradoxes regarding time and effort are something I’m constantly working on. However, I slightly disagree with you on what you said about failure. I think that you’re right about putting aside your ego and having a willingness to improve and recognize where you’re wrong, but I just want to explore it a little deeper.

I have long struggled with a fear of failure and perfectionism. Telling myself that I’m going to suck at something before I get good at it has never really gotten me going.

Exhibit A: When I was an art major in college applying for our school’s highly competitive animation program, I kept telling myself that my drawings sucked and that I HAD to keep drawing in order to get better so I could get accepted. The result? I hated drawing. I hated it so much. I had to constantly force myself to draw. I eventually burned out and had to change my major.

(Of course, you could argue that I was hoping for motivation that would never come, which was true, but that desire for motivation came from my fear of failure. Crazy how these things are interconnected.)

Exhibit B: I tell this story a lot. 2 years ago, I started running. I hated it. I lived in an apartment complex that was in the middle of a large hill. I tried running that damn hill and hated how hard it was.

I went running with my husband, who’s an excellent runner. He told me I was running too fast. I didn’t even realize there was such thing as running too fast. I was just running fast because…that’s what running was, right? Fast.

He told me to slow down and even taught me to do little switchbacks on the sidewalk or street while running up the hill. It’d help me catch my breath and I’d increase my lung capacity.

I started doing that. It made running FAR more bearable. I’ve ran 2 marathons since. I’ve also rewritten my story that I’m not athletic and I’ve gotten into rock climbing, strength training, and backpacking.

My point is this: I don’t like thinking that I’m going to suck at something, because that really ruins the experience for me. I end up thinking that it’s just not meant for me and that I might as well give up.

What works for me instead is finding what’s enjoyable about doing the hard thing. Running isn’t necessarily enjoyable, but the accomplishment of it is. Being able to explore your surroundings is.

I try to find the potential and enjoyment of getting into a new thing, whether that’s learning how to run hills or start a side gig. I don’t always enjoy doing the work of my side gig, and sometimes the deadline is what gets me going. But getting published? Re-reading what I wrote? Seeing people enjoy it? Getting that extra money? It’s awesome.

Fear of failure can paralyze you, which is why you have to find little successes that will help you along the way. I can’t fail my way to success, but I can take victory in my small wins.

I had to read number 4 twice, it just made too much sense needed to make sure I wasn’t hearing myself think.

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