How to think like Pythagoras

Updated: Apr 11, 2021

This blog post will outline a simple strategy that you can use in any situation to help you solve problems or overcome challenges that you might face by thinking paradoxically.



Paradoxes are seemingly absurd or contradictory statements or propositions which when investigated may prove to be well founded or true. Basically this means something that seems logically self-contradictory or runs contrary to your expectations. This kind of paradoxical thinking is sometimes referred to as Janusian thinking after Janus, the 2 faced Roman God.


So what we are conceiving when thinking this way are two opposing ideas co-existing together and both being true or viable. Creative problem solvers are comfortable dealing with and creating paradoxes. They are able to do this because they disregard logical thinking.


Instead of thinking in terms of either or they think in terms of both and. Socrates, according to Plato, said "I know one thing, that I know nothing". This in itself is a paradox but it also highlights another key point about creative thinking - approaching problem solving without assumptions is difficult but casting aside pre-conceived ideas about causes, effects and solutions to the challenges that you face is essential to effective problem solving.


What you can do to get on board with such thinking is to create mental templates that encourage, recognise and embrace paradoxes. This means identifying conflict or conflicting ideas which feel uncomfortable. This means not taking the middle ground. Creativity requires imagination. Problem solving does not necessarily require you to solve a problem so that it disappears.


Creativity requires imagination so you need to be aware of possibilities and this can involve contradictions or paradoxes. We are often driven to resolve conflict, to seek out pleasure over pain and find quick fixes to make our challenges disappear, but what if we allowed seemingly competing forces to coexist? It is irrational thinking and feels illogical but it can lead to creative innovation and effective problem solving.


Embracing incompatibility and ambiguity is a mindset. Forming combinations that others may not is a sure way to identify unique and perhaps brilliant solutions or new products and services Let's look at Pythagoras' Table of Opposites. Greek philosopher, Pythagoras believed that the structure of the world was dependent on the interaction of contraries or pairs of opposites.



The Table of Opposites in Pythagorean philosophy is a set of 10 contrary qualities. Which side of the table do you think is perceived as negative? Can you justify your view? Is your view of which column includes the perceived negatives motivated by another word in that column? Are these opposites really at odds with each other? Could they ever co-exist? If you could write your own table of 10 opposites, what would you include and why?


The next time that you are trying to solve a problem, instead of viewing the solution to be either or try to think in terms of both and.


Sometimes thinking in a contrary manner is a good route into identifying a creative solution which can lead to innovation. Matthew Syed, author of Rebel Ideas encourages us to think of ‘rebel combinations’: things that might not naturally go together, but when they do, they provide a unique solution or idea. Syed references the idea of combining wheels and suitcases to solve the issue of heavy luggage.


You can practise thinking in terms of rebel combinations to boost your creative thinking. Consider a food that has two elements that sound odd when combined but have proven really popular. Sweet and salty, sweet and sour, coca cola and ham, chili and chocolate, etc. This cross-pollination of ideas is fun and can lead you to a solution that will probably need refinement and multiple iterations, but it gets you started.


Think of an issue that you are trying to solve right now. What two or more ideas can you cross-pollinate?


Note them down, even if they sound like madness.


Link to additional resources including the Creativity Playbook


Link to my full Creative Thinking Masterclass

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