This is a classic illustration that can be viewed as a young woman wearing a necklace or an old woman with her head bowed. Of course, the picture itself is simply a combination of lines and dark and light areas. The images of the woman, young or old, are not really on the paper but in your mind. And you can see both the old and the young woman simultaneously in your mind.

We all have this unique ability to imagine opposite or contradictory ideas, concepts, or images existing simultaneously in our minds. Dr. Arthur Rothenberg, a noted researcher on the creative process, has extensively studied the use of opposites in the creative process. He identified a process he terms “Janusian thinking,” a process named after Janus, a Roman god with two faces, each looking in the opposite direction. Rothenberg discovered that it was this thinking process that inspired the original breakthrough ideas that many geniuses had.

Louis Pasteur discovered the principle of immunology by discovering the paradox. Some infected chickens survived a cholera bacillus. When they and uninfected chickens were inoculated with a new virulent culture, the uninfected chickens died and the infected chickens survived. In seeing the unexpected event of the chickens’ survival as a manifestation of a principle, Pasteur needed to formulate the concept that the surviving animals were both diseased and not-diseased at the same time. This prior undetected infection had therefore kept them free from disease and protected them from further infection. This paradoxical idea that disease could function to prevent disease was the original basis for the science of immunology.

Physicist Niels Bohr discovered that if you hold opposites together, then you suspend your thought and your mind moves to a new level. The suspension of thought allows an intelligence beyond thought to act and create a new form. The swirling of opposites creates the conditions for a new point of view to bubble free from your mind. This ability to hold two opposites together led to Bohr’s conception of the principle of complementarity for which he was awarded the Nobel prize. His discovery that light is both a particle and a wave is inextricably self-contradictory.

In physics, Einstein was able to imagine an object in motion and at rest at the same time.

EINSTEIN’S PROBLEM. The key idea of general relativity is that gravity pulling in one direction is completely equivalent to acceleration in the opposite direction. The contradiction was how can an object be in motion and rest at the same time.

ESSENCE: Moving while resting.

ANALOGY. To better understand the nature of the paradox, he constructed an analogy that reflected the essence of the paradox. An observer, Einstein posited, who jumps off a house roof and releases any object at the same time, will discover that the object will remain, relative to the observer, in a state of rest. Einstein realized that an observer who jumps off a house roof will not, in his or her immediate vicinity, find any evidence of a gravitational field.

UNIQUE FEATURE. The unique feature of this analogy was that the apparent absence of a gravitational field arises even though gravitation causes the observer’s accelerating plunge. Einstein realized that an observer who jumps off a house roof will not, in his or her immediate vicinity, find any evidence of a gravitational field. This was the analogy that Einstein said was his happiest thought in life because it pertains to the larger principle of general relativity. (He was looking for an analogy in nature that would allow him to bring Newton’s theory of gravitation into the theory of relativity, the step making it a general theory.

INSIGHT. Einstein’s great insight is that gravity, as well as motion, can affect the intervals of time and of space.

Einstein’s process of conceptually synthesizing opposites simultaneously is a blueprint on how to think paradoxically. Here is an example of how engineers used this process to solve a problem.

PROBLEM: A group of engineers worked in a foundry that cleaned forged metal parts by sandblasting them. They used sand to clean the parts, but the sand gets into the cavities and is time consuming and expensive to clean.

PARADOX: The paradox is that the particles must be “hard” in order to clean the parts and at the same time “not hard” in order to be removed easily. What is hard and not hard?
ESSENCE: The essence of the paradox is “Disappearing Hardness.”

ANALOGUE: The engineers brainstormed for substances that are hard that disappear. The synthesis of the two concepts led the engineers to think of ice. Ice is hard, but disappears when it melts.
UNIQUE FEATURE: The unique feature was “melts.”

IDEA: Water would be left after the ice melted. This could be blow dried. But the final solution to the problem was to make the particles out of dry ice. The hard particles will clean the parts and later turn into gas and evaporate.

In another example, W.J.J. Gordon used this strategy to develop Pringles potato chips. Pringles was a matter of designing a new potato chip and package that would allow for more efficient packaging of chips without the need to fill the bag with more air than chips. The paradox was a compact chip that would not destruct. The words that captured the essence of the paradox was “compact destruction.”

The analogy they worked with was bagging leaves in the fall. When you try to shove dry leaves into a plastic bag, you have a difficult time. But when the leaves are wet (unique feature), they are soft and formable. A wet leaf conforms to the shape of its neighbor with little air between them. By wetting and forming dried potato flour, the packaging problem was solved and Pringles got its start.

Consider the paradox that might be stated as “the best control comes from not controlling.” The legendary founder of Wal-Mart, Sam Walton, was a living demonstration of this contradiction. Walton was normally in his office only on Friday and Saturday to noon. Yet Wal-Mart was considered one of the more tightly managed organizations in the retail industry.

Someone once asked Walton how he could possibly run Wal-Mart when he was out of the office much of the time. He responded by saying, simply, that this was the only way to run a customer-focused organization. He spent Monday through Thursday in the field interacting directly with customers and employees and seeing what the competition was up to. In fact, while he was alive, Wal-Mart stores were built without an office for the store manager for the same reason. The manager’s job was to be out with the customers and employees.

Janusian thinking is becoming more and more common in science, business and the arts.  Physicist Dirk Helbing at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich, in his studies of “movement” of people and systems, discovered that paradoxically “slower is faster” when people try to escape from a room through a doorway. Surprisingly, it turns out that by placing an obstacle in front of the door enables people to get out faster as it helps to maintain the fluidity of the crowd. What makes it work is that crowds adjust to conditions. When two streams of people meet each other, one group goes out first and then the other. The crowd organizes itself in much the same way as fluids and gases do when forced into queues.


In another example of Janusian thinking, economists struggled with the U.S. stimulus package to spur consumer spending. After rebate checks arrived in the mail in the spring as part of the economic stimulus package, U.S. taxpayers unexpectedly saved much of the money rather than spending it.

Instead of spending the rebates, they were doing the opposite. The two opposite concepts in the problem are saving and spending. Saving while spending is a contradiction, or is it? An economist discovered an analogy with the sales retailers periodically run to promote traffic in their stores. He proposed an intriguing idea: have the federal government underwrite an across-the-board national “10 percent off” sale in stores throughout the country.

Rather than send checks in the mail, the federal government would promise each state government a lump sum equal to 10 percent of the total money spent on consumer goods within the state over the previous six months. In return, each state would agree to institute a “10 percent off” sale throughout stores within its jurisdiction. This would be done by eliminating the state sales tax (if one exists) as well as imposing a negative tax (in other words, a further price reduction) to bring the total sale to 10 percent. Participating retailers would then submit their sales receipts to the state government in order to be reimbursed for whatever losses they sustained by making these sales. In turn, the state governments would be reimbursed by the federal government.

In the end, the federal government’s money would go only toward propping up consumer spending. Moreover, limiting the sale to six months, consumers will jump at the opportunity to buy now before the opportunity disappears, particularly when it comes to big-ticket purchases such as cars.

And finally, many of our greatest artists have demonstrated this ability to see opposites simultaneously. It was Vincent van Gogh who showed in Bedroom at Arles how one might see two different points of view at the same time. Pablo Picasso achieved his cubist perspective by mentally tearing objects apart and rearranging the elements to present them from a dozen points of view simultaneously. Looking back at his masterpiece, Demoiselles d= Avignon, it seems to have been the first painting in Western art to have been painted from all sides at once. The viewer who wishes to appreciate it must reconstruct all the original points of view simultaneously. In other words, you must treat the subject exactly as Picasso had treated it to see the beauty of the simultaneity.