Progress can be elusive, even though we have experienced progress on so many dimensions for centuries. One of the reasons progress is so elusive is it requires us to embrace paradox. If we embrace paradox, we have the potential to accelerate and expand progress in unforeseen ways.
What do I mean by paradox? There are endless paradoxes to be addressed, but here I will focus on two. First, we as humans are all unique and all the same. Second, when we interact with each other, we need to both compete and collaborate.
Humans are unique and the same
Well, which is it? Both! There’s one school of thought that celebrates our unique individuality – we were all born with different attributes, we have lived in different environments, and we have evolved a complexity of being that would be challenging to replicate.
Another school of thought emphasizes that all humans are alike and share common attributes. We all seek to be treated with respect, we all have certain basic rights, and we all have certain basic material needs, like food and water.
There’s another perspective that focuses on the importance of diverse groups defined by gender, ethnic origins, age, or other attributes. From this perspective, individuals within groups are similar to each other, but the groups are unique in possessing certain attributes that are not shared by other groups, and that is ultimately what is most important.
We need to embrace all these perspectives. Imagine how much we could accomplish when we come together, driven by our common attributes, and unleash our uniqueness as individuals and as members of diverse groups to explore new approaches to achieving much greater progress.
We need to both compete and collaborate
How can we compete and collaborate? Isn’t it one or the other? No, it’s both.
Competition is a powerful driver of progress because it motivates participants to develop new and powerful ways to achieve more impact that is meaningful to others. In a competitive environment, speed is imperative, so there is a race to come up with better answers faster. Even more fundamentally, competition spurs many to come up with new and meaningful questions that no one has asked before, so that they can pursue different paths that will deliver much greater impact.
Competition is powerful, but collaboration makes it even more effective on so many levels. Think about it. If every individual competes with every other individual, the individuals each have access to limited talent and resources. If individuals come together and collaborate so that they can compete more effectively with others, they will create much more value more quickly than they ever could alone.
Collaboration works because humans are both unique and the same. We can come together because we share certain attributes that help us to build trust with each other. But collaboration also produces more value because we are all unique and can contribute different perspectives and ideas to evolve our approaches in addressing both opportunities and challenges.
Of course, individuals can come together and collaborate within a single organization, but collaboration extends well beyond that. Increasingly, our economy and society are being shaped by ecosystems that bring together many diverse organizations and individuals, so that they can leverage each other’s talents and resources far beyond any individual organization or group.
And collaboration is even more fundamental. Competition works best if there is broad agreement regarding the rules to govern competition so that it does not lead to harmful activity – that requires significant collaboration, ultimately on a global scale. In this context, the collaboration that works best is bottom-up, voluntary collaboration. Without this form of collaboration, competition can quickly become dysfunctional and destructive.
Competition also works much better if there are grassroots initiatives that bring people together to provide mutual aid in times of distress. This provides a safety cushion to ensure that everyone gets their most basic needs met, even when they confront unexpected challenges and difficulties. If these kinds of mutual aid initiatives are in place, we will be motivated to take more risk in exploring new ways to compete and deliver more value.
If anyone is doubtful about the mutually reinforcing effects of competition and collaboration, I would encourage you to visit Silicon Valley. Sociologists have studied the continued success of this region over decades and one factor they have highlighted is a culture that fosters both competition and collaboration.
We are becoming increasingly polarized as we seek to escape paradox. We are either extreme individualists embracing our uniqueness or extreme collectivists embracing our common needs and attributes. We are either avid free market advocates who champion competition as the way forward or we are advocates of alternative arrangements that seek to eliminate competition in favor of collaboration.
This polarization is a major barrier to progress. Until we embrace the paradox of progress and recognize that apparently contradictory approaches and values need to be woven together to create a better and more prosperous society, we will not unleash the progress that we all aspire to see.
We need to come together because we are so different, but have so many similarities. Competing with each other only works when we learn how to embrace collaboration. There’s so much potential to be unlocked when we see the power of paradox.