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On the Contrary Go Ahead and Contradict Yourself

June 15, 2001
Related Topics: Behavioral Training, Featured Article
I recently went to dinner in Las Vegas and ranted to a friend through thefirst course about how excessive that town is. Round-the-clock air-conditioning-- in the desert. Blackjack tables with a $500 minimum. Shopping malls likeEuropean palaces.

    The second course arrived, and I began to list the astonishing array of waysto waste money in Vegas. One: Three-foot cocktail glasses shaped like the EiffelTower. Two: Purses in the shape of boxing gloves complete with laces and thumbs.Three: Live sex shows, which are presumably better than dead sex shows, but still.

    The third course and its matching wine pairing arrived, and I started to pitythe sunburned-and-daiquiried tourists who saved money all year only to lose itall during an ill-timed visit to the craps table.

    By the time I'd finished dessert and pushed back from the table, I'd swelledinto a mass of self-righteousness. I, clearly, was one of the lucky few whocould resist the gauche, hedonistic extravagance that put Vegas on the map. Myfriend and I paid our $300 dinner tab and waltzed back to our room.

    As I lay by the hotel pool the next day, smelling coconut oil and listeningto magazines flap in the breeze, I realized, with horror, what a hypocrite I'dbeen. How could I scoff at such excess while dining at Picasso restaurant in theBellagio Hotel, surrounded by $30 million worth of Picasso originals? I feltlike a minister who preached family values by day while cavorting withbabysitters at night. How could I have been so contradictory?

    Searching for an answer, I looked around the pool area at the varioussunbathers. I spotted a group of heavily tanned smokers, a collection of thinpeople drinking mineral water inside a private cabana, and several pale couples-- newlyweds, I assumed -- who seemed to have forgotten they were no longer intheir hotel rooms.

    As I watched these disparate groups, it dawned on me that I'm part of aculture in which people naturally define themselves by their differences. Iwasn't being hypocritical at the restaurant. I was only doing what I've beenconditioned to do, and that is to categorize myself on the basis of how much Iam not like someone else.

    You see, everywhere we turn in America, we're being forced to choose sides.We're either hedonists or ascetics. Gamblers or savers. Democrats orRepublicans. Or so we think. The truth is that most of us travel back and forthon the different spectrums of human experience far more than we want to admit.I, for instance, am a Democrat who supports elimination of the estate tax, anenvironmentalist who drives an SUV, and a woman who thoroughly hates asking fordirections.

    The pressure to resolutely define ourselves as this or that isespecially prevalent in our working lives. Presumably, we're either team playersor individualists. Leaders or followers. Specialists or generalists. Evenpopular workplace assessments like the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator reinforce ourtendency to categorize. Are you an introvert, coworkers ask, or an extrovert? Athinker or a feeler?

    But are we really just one thing and not another? My sense is that we're alla trembling mass of contradictions. We may begin our adult lives with our ideasand attitudes neatly aligned, but like ivy on a brick wall, we often grow andgrope and cling in a confusing mix of overlapping directions. And that's a goodthing. If we're contradicting ourselves, if we're saying one thing and doinganother, it means we're changing, and human, and alive. Of course, it can alsomean we're clueless dolts.

    But if we can tune our radar into the many ways our actions don't alwayssupport our positions, three things are possible:

    First, we can learn how much we have in common with people who are supposedlydifferent from us. I don't waste money gambling and I'd never buy a boxing-glovepurse, but I willingly tip the extravagance scale where gourmet food isconcerned. In my indulgence at restaurants, am I really any different from theperson who spends all day at the roulette wheel? Hardly.

    Second, by becoming aware of our own contradictions, we are less likely tomoralize about the contradictions of others. Does your boss promote teamworklike a cheerleader for the Dallas Cowboys, and then spend most of her timeworking alone in her office? That's okay. Both are appropriate.

    Finally, paying attention to our contradictions allows us to realize that weare changing and growing. Instead of limiting ourselves with rigid definitions,think how much fuller life would be if we allowed ourselves to skateboard acrossthe full range of human experience. Why not be analytical and creative? Agambler and a saver? Go ahead: cheer for two teams instead of just one.

    Instead of thinking you have to be a flag bearer for a certain point of view,put down the flag and march with a different group for a change. You just mightlearn something about others, and you'll definitely learn something aboutyourself. You may even pick up another flag. As they say, we are ourcontradictions.

Workforce, June 2001, pp. 22-24 --  SubscribeNow!

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