Paradox of the Stage

Photo of a Stage Curtain

Part One: Initial Paradox

The Paradox of the Stage. The Creation of the Door. The Mystery of the Water at the Pier. I’ve used these phrases for years to explore pretty much the same thing: Some things don’t exist until you have them.

The Paradox of the Stage: If you have stage fright, you may want the comfort of the stage prior to being on the stage. But the stage with you on it doesn’t exist till you’re on it. You being on the stage creates an actual new stage. (Your stage may not be a physical stage but could be moving to a new city, such that the city with you in it doesn’t exist till you move there.)

The Creation of the Door: If you’re trapped in a metaphorical door-less room, you find a door by opening one. The door’s existence begins when you use it. You otherwise will wait forever for the door to make itself known before you turn the knob.

The Mystery of the Water at the Pier: You’re on an imaginary pier and can’t see the water. In fact, the water doesn’t exist yet. The more you need to see the water before you jump, the more you’re likely to slump down to the pier and/or give up. When you finally jump, you manifest the water.

Part Two: Effects

Creating the stage, door, or water is empowering. But how much do you care about what happens after you create one?

Take an actual stage. Say that you are sick-nervous to give a graduation speech, yet you still head to the podium and create the stage that has you on it. For you, is this the start and end of the story? Do you define success wholly as having created the stage? If so, you may not have any attachment to how it all goes from there.

But I believe most people desire at least a small sense of additional success for having taken that stage. It’s akin to a part two — what happens on the stage. It doesn’t have to be perfect, but you have a certain rubric for it. Yours could include an internal sense of approval for how the speech goes; external subjective validation in the form of praise: “That was the best metaphor I’ve ever heard;” or a score on a worksheet. Within those, it could also be specific and limited, say a particular feeling, or it could feature a range of acceptable numbers, like a spread of points on a grading scale.

Part Three: Confidence

When you’ve realized your desired part-two success, you can then name how confident you need to be that part-two will actually occur.

Reflect on how much you may connect a part-two success to the first success of ‘taking the stage’ being worth it. How acceptable would life be if you didn’t achieve a certain part-two? Could you live with potentially not achieving a part two? Or is a particular part two so powerful that it’s a need, not a want, and if you didn’t achieve it, you might disavow the initial success of ‘creating the stage’ and could end up resenting the whole affair?

Or to apply this to a specific example, say you want to move to a new city and that your part-two success is eating at an expensive restaurant every Saturday night. Do you require low, medium, or high confidence that you’ll achieve that diner status? How much would it be OK if you might not meet that part two?

Regarding full confidence: The one way to have one-hundred-percent confidence in a part two is having an infinite range of acceptable possible outcomes. (Or maybe being so privileged with, say, money, that it would never occur to you to worry about such things.) Apply confidence to a real stage again: One-hundred-percent confidence in an infinite range of acceptable possible outcomes may be useful and realistic for a stand-up comedian. They never know how a routine will go, so why count on anything?

On the other hand, inspiration to tour may grow to be fed by getting more and more laughs with each show, so even a comedian may develop a desired part-two success after a bit and learn how much confidence they require in meeting that outcome. What level of risk do they adopt as OK that they may not get the laughs?

Part Four: Precursor

To meet and undergird the confidence level you need in attempting the part-two success, you ensure at least one precursor to face the paradox of ‘creating the stage’.

Yep — you’ve arrived back at just before Part One: Initial Paradox. This is because achieving your precursor prior to ‘going on stage’ informs/creates the confidence level you need regarding the part-two success.

Take our example of a new city/dining out each Saturday. If you need nearly perfect confidence that you’ll immediately be able to afford those weekend meals, then you’ll institute a matching precursor, perhaps selling a hundred paintings to get your bank account to particular level. But if you are OK with low confidence in achieving the part-two success, your precursor might then be making a list of art galleries and street markets in the new city, and you hope to sell the hundred paintings when you arrive.

Another example: I tried to swim for about 40 years, and I never quite got beyond face-down floating. So I signed up for swimming lessons, the kind surrounded by the eyeballs of parents and children that easily notice a tentative group of half-naked adults. I stepped into the pool to create the pool with me in it. Initial success! As for a part-two success, I’d decided I wasn’t going to create the pool without the goal of swimming from one end to the other. I concluded that I required rather high confidence in that part-two happening to help me maintain that taking the lessons was worth it. My precursors to feed this confidence arose: talking about the goal, reading about swimming, and imagining positive scenarios that included review of technique. I was pretty confident that if I instituted all that first, I would learn to swim, as defined by a one-across achievement. I also knew that if I didn’t achieve this, it would be disappointing but ultimately OK since I had done what I could to nurture my confidence. (I achieved part two, by the way, along with the unexpected gained skills of floating, and swimming, on my back.)

Applying the Four Parts

Giving a speech – version one:

  1. You agree that getting in front of the class is the only way that you at the front of the class will exist.
  2. Say the acceptable part-two success is pretty much non-existent. You will be happy just for having gotten up there.
  3. You have high confidence that something will happen, but you don’t care what it is.
  4. The precursor has already been met, whatever it is. You get on the stage.

Giving a speech – version two:

  • You agree that getting in front of the class is the only way that you at the front of the class will exist.
  • Say the acceptable part-two success is receiving a speech grade of at least a “C.”
  • You have low confidence at present in achieving this grade, but you need to have medium confidence.
  • You establish the precursor of meeting with a speech coach three times to ensure your medium confidence level in achieving the part-two success. But, if you don’t achieve at least the “C” grade, you’ll still eventually feel OK, since you did what you could.

Moving to a new city – version one:

  1. You agree that moving to the city will create the city with you in it.
  2. Say the acceptable part-two success is, upon arrival, being able to afford symphony tickets in the best seats.
  3. You know you must have very high confidence in getting the tickets. In fact, if you can’t afford the tickets, you will resent the move.
  4. The precursor you come up with is getting a job in the new city prior to moving there. This means that you can’t create the city until you have that job. You admit you are the author of the part-two success, and that maintaining it has led you here, which is not necessarily good or bad. It is what it is, and it may be what you are capable of.

Moving to a new city – version two:

  • You agree that moving to the city will create the city with you in it.
  • Say a nice-to-have part-two success is, upon arrival, being able to afford symphony tickets in the best seats.
  • You don’t need to have high confidence this will happen. You’d really like it to occur, but you’re willing to take a good-sized risk that it won’t.
  • The precursor you come up with it making contacts for potential new jobs in the new city prior to moving there. This means you can create the city when you have those contacts.

Read more about my nonfiction writing here.

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