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Paradox and Possibility

Landmark Insights: Cat on a hot stove

If a cat jumps on a hot stove, he will never jump on a hot stove again. And that’s good. But he will also never jump on a cold stove again—and that may not be so good. When something happens and we assign a particular meaning, that “reduces the likelihood of repeating things that didn’t work as you hope it will, but that means you know less about the domains where you’ve done poorly than about the domains where you’ve done well.”*

We are constantly engaged in scanning the universe for clues about what means what. “It causes problems whenever our early experience with an alternative is, for whatever reason, not characteristic of what subsequent experience would be.”* When contradictions appear, we are slow to let go of past assumptions to which our way of being and acting is correlated. Taking old assumptions for granted and interacting with things that are already settled limits us and leads to “just so much.”

In recognizing that past, present, and future are an interpretation and not intrinsic to reality, a more fluid, open-ended, and relative world becomes available. We are never stuck with the way we are or how we see things. Transformation has the power to unseat us from business as usual, to upset the status quo—it carries with it a wisdom and a knowing that we have a choice about who we are and the full range available to us in being human. Ambiguity and paradox allow us to engage in a world that’s nuanced, rich, and full of wonder.

*Adapted from James G. March, interviewed by Diane Coutu, “Ideas As Art,” Harvard Business Review, 10/06

Cathy Elliot, Landmark Forum Leader
Cathy Elliott
Landmark Forum leader
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