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Outlier’s Path

Holding Opposing Ideas

At Stanford’s dy/dx program, founder Tony Xu was asked about the qualities he interviews for at DoorDash. One of the five traits is holding and making sense of opposing ideas. As F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote, “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.”

In our increasingly polarized world, we are pushed to side with one extreme or the other, but we know better. Black or white is easy to argue in a high school debate competition, but usually, the truth rests in the messy gray. Trying to hold opposing ideas causes cognitive dissonance. That discomfort and our desire to reconcile the tug-of-war between opposing views push us to examine the nuances, seek new information, update our priors, and test alternative explanations. We might find innovative solutions, novel insights, new truths, and complete paradigm shifts through this process.

Often in science, genius arises through the resolution of uncomfortable contradictions. Einstein’s theory of relativity reconciles two seemingly contradictory concepts, Newtonian mechanics and Maxwell’s equations of electromagnetism. His theory revolutionized our understanding of space, time, matter, and energy, or simply E=mc². (For more examples in quantum theory or quantum gravity, ask Sequoia Partner Shaun Maguire.)

In the business world, we also face opposing ideas: the story of the future versus the realities of today, what our customers say they want versus how they interact with the product, and how our organization operates daily versus what we aspire to become. Each company will find its specific opposing forces, but more generally, there is a constant tug-of-war between tailwinds and headwinds or opportunities and constraints.

Today, the opportunities arise from a much more resilient economy and an innovation cycle driven by AI, and the constraints lie in macro uncertainty and higher cost of capital. We can debate which side will win, and in that debate, it’s easier to see the innovation cycle as a positive and capital constraints as a negative. Instead, we can also hold these opposing ideas and reimagine our business. We can seize the potential of an AI technological tectonic shift while simultaneously accepting the constraints of the higher cost of capital to build a much more sustainable company.

We are entering a period of profound change. What we are talking about today, we weren’t talking about three months ago, and it stands to reason, what we are talking about today, we won’t be talking about three months from now. In this period of accelerating change, we have to hold opposing ideas and make sense of them. By doing so, we find better understandings and paradigm-shifting solutions, both of which put us on the path to building era-defining companies.