June 21, 2007

How good does it get? (3) - The inevitability and usefulness of tensions

If William James was right contrary impulses within people are inevitable and useful. From the outside these ‘inner stresses’ are usually hard to perceive. This may explain why people may (falsely) think that other people –unlike themselves- don’t have these inner stresses. And it may explain why we are easy preys for professionals who try to convinces us that experiencing difficulties must mean we need (their) professional help. From a distance other people may look very calm and controlled.

The reality is that there is a more or less constant tension within any  complex system. From a distance, a famous organization may appear to function very smoothly. They serve their customers, they make a good profit and they innovate. However, if we’d get a chance to look from the inside we might see all the messy processes and inner tensions and conflicts that occur within the organization. A great pop star or movie star may appear to lead a glamorous and problem-free life. However, when their biographies come out we may find out about the struggles and problems of their lives too. The same with historical figures like Caesar, Alexander the Great, Beethoven and Darwin. We tend to remember the glorious ‘summaries’; of their lives. Close inspection, however, teaches us that they were more like us than we thought. They had to deal with problems and struggles constantly, like we do.

From the outside the system seems stable and steady, from the inside there is equilibrium of many contrary forces. Beautiful examples in nature are the stars in the sky. From a distance we may think of a star as a glorious solid shining body in the sky. But, from up close, a star is more like a collection of very dynamic processes than a solid body. The star is the result of the balance between two oppose forces: an outward force caused by a process of nuclear fusion by which hydrogen is steadily converted into helium and an inward gravitational force. These two opposing forces create a state of equilibrium. At some point the outward force will decline because the star will be running out of hydrogen. This is the beginning of the end of the life cycle of the star. This is an interesting perspective: the inner stresses are the essence of the ‘life’ of the star. 

Back to human beings and organizations. A realistic perspective seems to be that the problem-free life, the life of constant comfort will never exist. We should probably not let professionals of any kind convince us that experiencing problems or doubts necessarily means we need a therapist, coach or consultant. Instead, we may be wise to embrace our stresses and dissatisfactions and consciously use them to make progress.


  1. Wow, what a great post! I had the same feeling from reading biografies and living inside corporations, that win awards and are admired from the outside but are stressful on the inside. Thanks for putting this into words!

  2. Totally right. I remember as a teenager thinking that others were more confident and happier. Eventually, I figured out that no one is totally together. Everyone has inner conflict. It's part of being human.

  3. Hi Rodney, thanks! I think it may even be essential to all life

  4. Thanks, I use this in my work with clients. I often talk about tension caused by perfectly normal things like conflicting goals. I frame them as creative tension (sometimes, for fun as delicious tension), and ask, 'Suppose we were to make progress on both and each were working, what might that look like?' Then, 'What would we find we have in common, despite the differences?'


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