A list of dialectics

Nov 26, 2020

"The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function." - F. Scott Fitzgerald

Simple rules of thumb are memorable but rarely drive good decisions in a complex world. Instead I prefer dialectics: two seemingly opposing ideas whose union hints at a larger truth.

I've collected a few of my favorites below. I often explain them via tech startups and business, which I think about the most. They're applicable across other domains too.

1. Optimism <> Pessimism

Startups requires incredible optimism. You must have inordinate conviction that your vision for the business will come to bear. It's the only way to convince yourself, employees, investors, partners, and customers to part with time and money. But things will likely get really tough. 90% of startups fail. You must remain skeptical you will defy daunting odds. You don't want to waste your (or anyone else's) time working on something that won't succeed.

2. Attachment <> Detachment

Whether you want to perform the simplest task or achieve the grandest goal, you need to desire a positive outcome. Otherwise, how will you summon the motivation to get out of bed in the morning and do the work? But, the quality of your effort might be irrelevant. Factors beyond your control might dictate the final outcome. If you get too attached to the fruits of your labor, you're leaving your mood and self-esteem to the whims of chance.

3. Explore <> Exploit

The world is rich and varied. There's always something new to learn, see, feel, and taste. And you might enjoy those new things more than you've ever enjoyed anything you've experienced. It's impossible to know unless you explore further. But you already have a sense of what you prefer and what you don't. You don't want to waste your precious time on things that won't give you joy. So, you might as well double down on your favorites.

4. Macro <> Micro

Diving into a quarterly earnings report gives you a macro view of a company. You'll get a sense of things you might model on a spreadsheet: which business units are profitable, which ones are growing, and how much cash is on hand. Spending an hour with the CEO gives you a micro view. You'll get a sense of things you might learn from a magazine profile: what affects the CEO's mood, how the CEO makes decisions, and what are the values that guide the company's priorities.

5. Quantitative <> Qualitative

Startups force you to build something customers really, really want. Retention is a great measure of this. What % of the customers who use your product this week will use it next week? Measuring retention forces you to be honest with yourself about your product's value. But retention don't tell you why people want your product. Instead, spend 10 minutes speaking with 5 people who've ever tried your product. In under an hour, you'll get fresh ideas for who might want your product and why.

6. Long term <> Short term

You will likely be around for a long time. Focusing on the long term frees you to prioritize the 20% that matters and disregard the noise of the remaining 80%.  Thinking over a long time horizon leads you to value small, boring, compounding benefits. But life is short. The future might never come - it exists only in your imagination. The present is tangible and real. Savor it in as much detail as you can.

7. Togetherness <> Solitude

What's the use of learning something new, feeling something profound, or making something grand if you can't share it with others? We're social animals, hardwired to crave connection and distinguished by our ability to cooperate with others. But, nobody else can read your mind or feel your emotions, try as they might. Making sense of it all is something you have to do for yourself in your own time.

If any of these resonate with you or you have suggestions on others to include, please let me know via Twitter.