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Big Ideas

The Four Paradoxes of Great Performance

Even the best qualities can turn into weaknesses when we don't temper them. A look at the give and take approach of great performers.

We each long for certainty – the security of simple answers. What, for example, are the specific qualities that make us more likely to be successful?  Companies spend millions of dollars trying to define the key competencies for specific jobs.  Researchers seek to pinpoint the qualities that distinguish top performers from everyone else.

The more time I spend working with leaders at other companies, and leading a company of my own, the more convinced I’ve become that the paradoxical key to great performance – and leadership – is the capacity to embrace opposites.Stoic philosophers referred to this as the mutual entailment of the virtues.  No virtue, they argued, is a virtue by itself.  Even the noblest virtues, standing alone, have their limits.

Honesty in the absence of compassion becomes cruelty.  Tenacity unmediated by flexibility congeals into rigidity.  Courage without prudence is recklessness.

As Gregory Bateson put it: “There is always an optimal value beyond which anything is toxic, no matter what: oxygen, sleep, psychotherapy, philosophy.”

Instead, operate best when we embrace our opposites in each of the four key dimensions of our lives:

1. The Physical.

At the physical level, most of us live by the myth – born in the industrial revolution – that more, bigger, faster is better. In the digital age, we increasingly pattern ourselves after our computers, operating at high speeds, continuously, for long periods of time.In reality human beings operate best when we pulse between spending and renewing energy.  Your heart pulses rhythmically when you’re healthy. Your brain is designed to wave between high and low frequency electrical activity.

Consider something as simple as breathing.  The more deeply you breathe in and out, the more relaxed and focused you become.  The shallower and faster you breathe, the more anxious and reactive you tend to be.

In our rush to get things done, it doesn’t occur to most of us that intermittently renewing and refueling energy prevents us from relentlessly burning down our energy as the day wears on, and makes it possible to bring more of ourselves to whatever we do.

Most of us live by the myth that more, bigger, faster is better.

2. The Emotional.

At the emotional level, most of us embrace the notion that confidence lies at the heart of success. Vulnerability and uncertainty are seen as signs of weakness.Confidence is undeniably one of the feelings we have when we’re performing at our best.  Overused, however, it turns into arrogance, inflation, denial, and rigidity.

The problem is that it feels dangerous to acknowledge our limitations and difficult to admit we don’t know the answer, much less that we got something wrong. Doing so is a way of staying open to learning and growing.  It’s also an invitation to others – a way of establishing trust and connection.

Humility comes from the Latin word “humilitas” which translates as grounded, or from the earth. According to Jim Collins, in Good to Great, it’s one of the two qualities, along with fierce resolve, that most commonly characterize great leaders.

Most of us embrace the notion that confidence lies at the heart of success.

3. The Mental.

At the mental level, we’ve long worshipped at the altar of scientific method and observable facts and admired rigorous, analytic left-hemisphere thinking. If something can’t be studied objectively and empirically, then it isn’t really real.

At the same time, we’ve paid precious little attention to cultivating the more subjective, imaginative, and integrative capacities of the right hemisphere of our brain, which is visual rather than verbal, and capable of big intuitive leaps and creative breakthroughs.

The ability to embrace both of these ways of thinking – to recognize that each is essential but neither is sufficient by itself – lies at the heart of whole brain thinking. The more flexibly we learn to move between them, the more capable we are of taking on the most complex problems we face.

We’ve paid precious little attention to cultivating the more subjective, imaginative, and integrative capacities of the right hemisphere of our brain.

4. The Spiritual.

When we talk about spiritual energy, we mean the energy derived from serving a purpose larger than yourself. Far too few of us feel this in our lives, and far too few leaders in companies recognize the galvanizing impact of creating a shared and compelling sense of purpose beyond simply being successful at the bottom line.

By contrast, we’ve found that people in professions such as health care, education, social work, and the military often run almost solely off spiritual energy.  They’re so single-mindedly focused on serving others, and so define themselves in these terms, that they fail to take care of themselves. Compassion fatigue is the term used to describe caregivers who literally burn out.

Self-care is a prerequisite to being most effective on behalf of others. At the spiritual level, sustainable great performance requires creating a healthy balance between systematically taking care of one’s own core needs, and then using that energy to better serve others.

What Do You Think?

Have you found that embracing opposites is critical to great performance?

More Posts by Tony Schwartz

Comments (38)
  • Eamesgreg

    I agree with this. Life is all about balance, moderation is a key factor, including.moderation of moderation.

  • Sam Spurlin

    This is similar to the idea of “practical wisdom” espoused by psychologist Barry Schwartz. Any virtue left unchecked will become maladaptive. He argues that there is a “meta-value” that he calls practical wisdom that allows us to know when to utilize or scale back our various strengths.

  • Pete R.

    I find the physical part is what I often dealt with everyday while working. Balancing between work and play will most of the time leads to higher productivity, and more creative. 

    If you are working on solving a problem late at night, I find that if i leave the problem like that for a night and sleep, when I woke up, I always find a solution of it, or a new way of approaching the problem which always lead me to a better solution than I previously assume  possible.

    Great article!

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    Nice post!

  • Holly Rotman-Zaid

    Your writing here reminds me of my favorite quote: If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am only for myself, what am I? and if not now, when?
    Life is definitely about balance–and you seem to hit the nail on the head with this!

  • jay

    less is more! plain and simple..

  • Matthew

    Thanks for this great article to start off the week! I have found that the capacity to embrace opposites, and the uncertainty that comes with it is crucial in my daily practice. I embrace this mentality at the physical level through surfing and let it reverberate through the rest of me, and I can live no other way. 

  • Geraldine

    Great article. What you’re saying is absolutely true, and important. It’s just like, there’s no happiness if you have no sadness to tell you what happiness is. Opposites are there for us to find the optimal balance that we work at, so that we can do the best we can and live life the way it’s meant to be lived. 🙂 

  • Ethan Appleroth

    I really like this article, but I almost choked on my salad when I read this phrase:

    “Compassion fatigue is the term used to describe caregivers who literally burn out.”

    I think that compassion fatigue does cause burnout in caregivers, but this is just a metaphor. To say that they literally burn out would make me rethink those hokey spontaneous combustion documentaries I used to watch on the History Channel.

  • ElliottFryback

    I can commiserate and concur with many points in the article
    the physical, the emotional, but especially with points mentioned in respect to
    mental and spiritual. It is so true that we have become overly dependent on
    left-brain thinking and have neglected the ideology of right hemisphere
    interpretations. I believe that this imbalance is what brings about much of the
    problems concerning “The Spiritual” one doesn’t acknowledge it and one is
    blinded by it. My Mother is one who suffers herself from compassion fatigue, a
    social worker who gives too much of her self until she has nothing left.  She needs that healthy balance but she’s too
    emotional to realize.


  • TubbyMike

    Two tenets that I’m still trying to integrate into my daily life:

    “Everything in moderation. ” My Granny.
    “A man’s gotta know his limitations.” Clint Eastwood as Dirty Harry.

    Both seem to resonate with your article and with a balanced life.

  • Andy Murray

    Great POV Tony, and I really like the way you framed all four points. On point #1, I’ve always felt that we are in one of two states; consuming or creating.  Unfortunately, our culture seems to reinforce a consumption based need state. However, I think in the act of creating we get to actualize our greater purpose and receive true renewal.  
    Andy Murray

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  • Rafael

    Great article about balance in life.

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  • Endy_craven

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  • Iñigo Blanco

    Great article, congrats! Very inspiring 🙂
    I wrote a kind-of similar reflection, But how can we shift our learning and working environments to create positive impact and self-sustaining projects? Let’s try to design a Zhong Yong Project.

    Please, visit WhiteKaos blog for further info:

  • Mae Gale

    Beautifully poignant! I agree completely!

  • mae

    Love it!

  • Marc Posch

    All four matter, but in my experience the most important part is #4, the spiritual. If you don’t ask yourself once in a while the “Why” question, and just feed into “What” and “How” you end running in that hamster wheel on auto pilot, until the wheel crashes. My favorite book about: “Start with Why” by Simon Sinek. It was an eye opener to me. 

    Best, Marc, 
    Marc Posch Design, Los Angeles

  • Suzanne Frazier

    Thoughtfully written blog. Maybe because I agree with you.  I teach Contemplative Art Retreats and most of my participants are people in business who are looking for ways to balance their brains and their lives.  I use art to help people understand and feel how their right brain capacity is so beneficial to the functioning of their left brains.

  • Parin Patel

    Great look at these common paradoxes and inner battles we often face as we strive for success. 

    I find that before we can even embrace it (because we may not completely understand how it pertains to or effects us?), a key step is paying close attention to ourselves: our lives, our habits and our daily actions (and inactions).

    Self-awareness is key.


  • Guest

    Nice one! 

  • Blahberstein

    What I really enjoyed about this article is the subtle reminder of simple observations that – in the course of insanely busy schedules – we tend to neglect.  Even the mention of deep breathing is helpful in drawing attention to stress.

    Also, I constantly fight with polar extremes: if a short burst of technical training is good, then wouldn’t a solid year be better?  What about three years?  And so on.  It’s fatiguing when you don’t have your goals in perspective.

  • Rachael

    I think emotional and mental can be combined to form PMS. The Physical,
    Mental and Spiritial tripod, which creates true balance in my life.  But treatment and attention always begins with the Physical aspect. Am I tired, hungry or sick. Followed by the Mental, what am I thinking, feeling or worried about. And last but definately not least Spiritual – am I lonely (I believe lonliness is a Spiritual malidy), have I followed the Golden Rule. If one side of my PMS tripod is collapsed then I am out of balance and life is met with much more difficulty.  

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