Class of 2013: There Are No One-Sided Coins

As you leave the world of campus life, classes and final exams, things will get a lot less simple – fast. Beyond college’s neatly-drawn borders, you’ll get used to wrestling with many kinds of contradiction, paradox and duality.

Don’t worry, you’ll have plenty of good company. Einstein himself never found a way to reconcile the theories of the cosmically large (general relativity) and the vanishingly small (quantum mechanics). But both constructs, incompatible as they’ve been for a century, remain the pillars of modern physics.

Likewise, no one’s discovered a unifying approach to success in work and life – and maybe there isn’t one. So rather than looking for a grand solution, learn to embrace contradiction. After all, opposites are often just two halves of a greater whole: two sides of the same coin.

Here are a few ideas that may help you to embrace life’s opposing forces, to confidently navigate the next phase of your journey:

Setting goals is vital; ignoring them is key. Don’t do anything that matters without first setting a goal. Aim high, ignore naysayers, and do it with feeling. But do it all in pencil. Having goals helps you take the first step on a path. But once you’re moving, things change fast, and you may have to alter or abandon your old course in favor of a newer, better one. The best entrepreneurs reimagine their businesses several times on the way to success. Dwight Eisenhower, the architect of the D-Day invasion claimed, “plans are nothing; planning is everything.”

Master the rules; master breaking them. It’s often said that Picasso learned to “draw like Ingres,” the beautifully precise French portraitist – before Picasso learned to draw like Picasso. You too should become expert in the forms of your trade, and learn how to color within the lines as well as anyone. Know the details – cosmic and quantum – of how your business or field works. That knowledge will enable you to spot the most glaring weaknesses in the old model, so you can be the person to create a new one.

Soar and “strafe.” You’ve got to see the world from 30,000 feet – and from ground level: the forest and the trees. Only at high altitude can you absorb all you need to plan the big picture strategy. But it’s on the ground that your plans become reality. Agility in moving from big to small and back again allows you to stay flexible, and to keep strategy in line with tactics.

Be generous and self-interested. We’re all self-interested – either in a more enlightened, long-term way, or in a benighted short-term way. Make your self-interest of the long-term variety and try to forgive others who are more concerned with what they can get right away. Indeed, generosity toward others’ myopia can be contagious. As your goodwill rubs off, you may find (and here’s the self-interest again) that you get back a lot more than you expected.

Trust, and expect betrayal. If you never get burned, maybe you’re not lighting enough fires. Wariness can sometimes protect you from others’ mischief; but if you allow yourself to become paranoid, you’ll spend all your time and energy finding ways to insulate yourself from damage. Better to take the risk and – when you feel you have reason to – put your trust in someone’s abilities. You’ll often find that your faith empowers them to grow and accomplish far more than they thought they could. Yes, some people will let you down or sell you out – but in the long run, those scars will be more than made up for by the many successes your belief made possible.

The odds are you’ll find more meaning in your life by taking a path filled with regular dilemmas, contradictions and paradoxes. More often than not, big truths lie beyond boundaries you initially perceive. Don’t think of the coin as either heads or tails; imagine it while it’s still spinning through the air, offering both sides at once.