Balancing Dichotomies

On finding the equilibrium between the many contradictory forces present in life.

Diner Ismail

3 minute read

Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about ideas that are present in more than one context and which are more generally applicable - rather than specific techniques or singular pieces of knowledge. One of these ideas is what I call balancing dichotomies.

A dichotomy is defined as “a division or contrast between two things that are or are represented as being opposed or entirely different”. In other words, when you point out a dichotomy you draw a clear distinction between two things.

In his books and podcasts, Jocko Willink often talks about the dichotomy of leadership. In this case, it encompasses many smaller ones, like authority vs humility, being a leader vs being a follower, or being able to exercise extreme ownership while exercising decentralised command. Jocko says that “just as discipline and freedom are opposing forces that must be balanced, leadership requires finding the equilibrium in the dichotomy of many seemingly contradictory qualities between one extreme and another.” By being aware of these seeming contradictions, a leader can “more easily balance the opposing forces and lead with maximum effectiveness.”

Keeping this balance is quite difficult. What I’ve learned is that most often it’s not about always staying in the perfect middle, but it’s more about knowing when and how to turn to either extreme.

There are a few other dichotomies that I took notice of lately:

1. Seriousness vs Play

This is an obvious one, but it’s good to be aware of how you’re keeping balance between the two poles. What I’ve mentioned earlier about bouncing between extremes fits well in this case. Staying in a constant state of half-work and half-play (e.g. doing work with Facebook open, of which I’m sometimes guilty) is not really productive, and not even fun - it actually often creates stressful guilt. Full intensity in either extreme is what is preferred: doing your work while fully engaged will make you more productive, and will also leave you with more time and less anxiety while relaxing afterwards.

This dichotomy can also be interpreted in a different way, as it is in the description of Leonardo Da Vinci’s thinking process which I found in Think Like Da Vinci:

“Leonardo’s seriousness drove him to penetrate the essence of things, and his playfulness allowed him to make unprecedented, original connections.”

2. Being an achiever vs being grateful

I’ve thought about this a lot, and I’m still sometimes struggling with finding the equilibrium between my drive for achieving and creating versus my desire to enjoy life and have fun. This is a complicated one, and it probably deserves its own post.

However, I think the idea of bouncing between extremes still applies. How about if when you’re doing your work you’re focused on doing your best, delaying gratification and trying to achieve as much as you can, but then when you’re having fun or relaxing you are being grateful for what you already have? I think that could work. Although I am aware of how similar it is to the point number 1.

3. Romanticism vs Classicism

Just watch this video. It’s an important idea, and it’s eloquently explained by the philosopher Alain de Botton.

A few others are:

  • Science vs art
  • Specialisation vs generalisation
  • Intimacy vs independence (in relationships)

I invite you to think of any other dichotomies present in your life so that you can become more aware of the interplay between them and, if needed, to try and maintain a better equilibrium.

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