Goldilocks or Unreasonable?

Compromise is a precious skill in today’s society. Traditionally, the job of politicians has been to find the middle, to bring us around to “all-things-considered” conclusions – even when they may not be ideal for anyone. But we are in a season in which politicians in both parties win elections through ferocious intolerance – which can then destroy any chance at finding a middle ground once the rhetoric cools down.

The search for the middle has great value. Astronomers and cosmologists search for a sweet spot they call the “Goldilocks Zone,” where it’s not too hot and not too cold, where there could be water on a planet’s surface and thereby allow life to exist. Aristotle gave generations of philosophers the “golden mean” – that middle ground between excess and deficiency. Other early philosophers spoke of beauty in terms of a balance between symmetry, proportion and harmony. Eastern religions similarly valued the notion of the Middle Way.

Likewise, I work with many young people striving for the holy grail of work-life balance – their own Goldilocks Zone of just enough work to satisfy the need for money, status and meaning, along with sufficient time for family, hobbies and social activity. It’s the rare person who compulsively pursues perfection or pays the price asked of musical prodigies or Olympic athletes – or, for that matter, of entrepreneurs.

Although society owes a debt of gratitude to those who search for the Goldilocks Zones in their fields – the better to provide the lubricants for compromise, for all-things-considered decisions – society also must thank the unreasonable men and women who toil at the extremes. What would our lives look like without the zeal of Steve Jobs, Bill Gates and other tech revolutionaries? How would life be different without the uncompromising business fervor that Rockefeller and Carnegie brought to their endeavors more than a century ago? None of them sought the middle way. Most entrepreneurs are more likely to agree with George Bernard Shaw: “The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore, all progress depends on the unreasonable man.”

I spend a lot of time coaching, teaching and investing in these “unreasonable” entrepreneurs. They’re amazing innovators, job creators, outside-the-box thinkers. Their unusual intolerance for the status quo is accompanied by a tolerance for failure. They have an uncanny ability to adapt, an indomitable will and unusual resilience. But they do not inhabit the Goldilocks Zone.

Most business leaders would agree it’s a mistake to spend too much time seeking consensus or making decisions democratically or finding middle-ground solutions. Yet most of those leaders would also give due credit to the wisdom of the crowd, to data, to envisioning the future by understanding trends. And most would be grateful for those who move society along by finding its Goldilocks Zones.

Rather than finding midpoints, entrepreneurs typically work outside existing norms. They imagine solutions wholly outside the Goldilocks Zone. The virtue of our American culture is that both rebel and traditionalist thrive simultaneously. The trick is for each of us is to pursue the appropriate path for our own skills and proclivities – with a full appreciation of the other necessary approach to progress. A politician who prizes ideology over the middle ground will not likely succeed. And an entrepreneur who only aspires to incremental progress will leave no mark.

Figure out if your tendencies are as a synthesizer, as a finder of the middle way –or if you’re “unreasonable” and off the grid. For most of the rest of us, who are some combination of both, we must decide when to enter the Goldilocks Zone and when to embrace the “unreasonable.”

 By Joel Peterson