Because we’re taught to keep opposites separated, but most paradoxes make us feel ambivalent and uncertain. We think of shapes such as curves and lines as separate and distinct. We know this because we’re taught to know things in relation and in opposition to each other.

Centuries ago, the fifteenth-century mathematician Nicholas of Cusa made the following observation regarding the shape of an infinite circle. The curvature of a circle’s circumference decreases as the size of the circle increases. For example, the curvature of the earth’s surface is so negligible that it appears flat. The limit of decrease in curvature is a straight line. The curvature of an infinite circle, then, is…a straight line! We arrive at this thought by means of our intellect, which recognizes the coincidence of these two opposites.

Read the following from top to bottom. Think for a moment about the meaning of the words. Now, read it again starting at the bottom and reading up. Changing the way you read the same words from (top to bottom) to (bottom to top) changed the meaning of the essay.

The Lost Generation

“Happiness comes from within”

Is a lie, and

“money will make me happy.”

So in 30 years I will tell my children

They are not the most important thing in my life

My employer will know this

I have my priorities straight because


is more important than


I will tell you this

Once upon a time

families stayed together

but this will not be true in my era

this is a quick fix society

Experts tell me

30 years from now I will be celebrating the 10th anniversary of my divorce

I do not concede that

I will live in a country of my own making

In the future

Environmental destruction will be the norm

No longer can it be said

my peers and I care about the earth

It will be evident that

my generation is apathetic and lethargic

It is foolish to presume

there is hope.

We understand ideas and concepts in terms of their relation and opposition to each other. To get an alternative understanding, reverse an idea and see what new relationships are created. For example, many famous artists have designed and mass-marketed consumer goods such as purses, T-shirts, messenger bags, and so forth for a handsome profit. Unknown artists can’t avail themselves of this opportunity, because they are not recognized and no one is buying their art.

A group of artists in San Francisco reversed this formulation in an interesting way. They asked, If the reputation of a famous artist makes commercial sales of consumer goods possible, why can’t consumer goods make lesser-known artists famous?

THE IDEA: The group holds a variety of gallery shows, and, in addition to paintings, they sell wallets. Each artist prints his or her own design on a dozen wallets, which are priced at twenty-five dollars each. The wallets both produce a profit and serve as promotional items for the lesser-known artists. Wallets were chosen as the medium because they are not hung on a wall but are carried around, exposing the artists to a much wider audience.

Look at it one way, and famous art makes consumer sales possible; look at it another way, and it’s consumer sales that make famous art possible. It’s much like the illustration above the text. Look at it one way, it’s a rabbit; look at it another way, it’s a duck. Either way, it’s the same figure. It is you (the observer) who constructs reality.

(Michael Michalko is a highly-acclaimed creativity expert and the author of Thinkertoys: A Handbook of Creative Thinking Techniques; Cracking Creativity: The Thinking Strategies of Creative Geniuses;  Thinkpak: A Brainstorming Card Deck, and Creative Thinkering: Putting Your Imagination to Work.)

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