Message from Gage E. Paine, Vice President for Student Affairs
Power of Paradox – Living in a Both/And World
Adapted from a presentation for Administrative Professionals Day,
April 23, 2008
Apparently, based on the two times I’ve given this presentation now,
nobody else remembers as much about the TV show “Bewitched” as I
do. But we use a phrase from that show in our house a lot. The
phrase is “a disturbance in the atmospheric continuum.” On the show
it was used when something went wrong like Aunt Clara ending up in
Bermuda rather than the Stevens’ house or they could feel impending
doom, like Endora arriving to create turmoil.
We use it for things that happen that we can’t explain – like when
KONO 101.1 shifts from oldies to salsa, or when we can’t get good
reception on the TV. Now when talking about our TV reception, I
should explain that we are one of 15% of households in the U. S.
that don’t have cable or satellite. We still use an antenna and we
can get stations from San Antonio and Austin – except sometimes we
only get them from San Antonio or Austin or half of each – for no
apparent reason – so we put it down to disturbances in the
But it’s really both things are likely caused by the fact that we
live in between San Antonio and Austin and the radio and TV signals
are weaker out there and more subject to outside influences – AKA
disturbances in the atmospheric continuum.
We really do live in the middle. It is a one hour trip to the
Downtown Campus and to the UT System offices depending on whether I
turn right or left at I-35. But San Antonio is where we run
errands, go in for an hour and come back. Austin is a special trip;
we don’t just run up there – even though we have several favorite
restaurants there. Partly this is because I work in San Antonio and
partly it is because we haven’t lived in Austin for 10 years so it
is not as familiar, not as comfortable.
The theme for National Administrative Professionals week was
“Forward Moving” – meaning the way career-minded professionals
position themselves to continue to hone skills and take charge of
their careers. And of course, this concept applies to all of us no
matter our current job title.
Now to be forward moving there is a critical element – you have to
DO something and it is almost always a change. You have to do
something different, go someplace not as familiar, maybe not as
So here’s where we come to our first paradox –
But first a slight digression to talk about what a paradox is. From
the on-line Merriam-Webster dictionary the definition is: a
statement that is seemingly contradictory or opposed to common
sense, and yet is perhaps true, a statement that possesses seemingly
contradictory qualities or phrases. An example of a logic paradox
is Zeno’s paradox – to get from point A to point B, first you must
cover half the distance, then you must cover half of that new
distance, and then the half of that new distance and so on and so
on. Therefore, you can never get from point A to point B. Tricky,
huh? (Of course if you’ve ever traveled any distance with small
cranky children – you know this is actually true.)
But this helps illustrate our first paradox – the reality that all
we have to do to make a change in our lives is to take one tiny,
teeny little step forward – and that tiny little step is often the
biggest step we’ll ever take. It is both the biggest in potential
impact and in how much courage it can take to make that one little
So here’s where the power of living with paradox can help us.
Usually what we do is worry about how hard or big or far off the end
result is and we paralyze ourselves, don’t we? We live in a world
If A is right, B must be wrong.
If this is yes, that must be no.
If I win, you lose.
This thing I’ve thought about is so big; I don’t have time, money,
ability, so I can’t possibly do it.
But what if we turn Zeno’s paradox on its head and say, I don’t have
to get all the way there in one step, I don’t even have to get
half-way there. All I have to do is take just one little bitty step
I can get the college catalog today,
tomorrow I can call to see an advisor .
One little bitty step -I can get the training and development
calendar and see what’s offered to help me learn a new technical
One little bitty step – I can call the community education program
of my local school district and take a dance class – learning is
learning and then I can try for the skill I need for work.
This is living in a both/and world. Taking a step that is both very
small and very large at the same exact time. That’s the power of
Paradox is also a little messy. Remember our television signals;
we’re never quite sure what our reception will be. Both/and isn’t
as simple as either/or. But it’s also very important. For us, when
the weather is crazy, we need to listen to both Austin and San
Antonio to get a clear idea of what will happen in our little part
of the world - neither forecast by itself paints the true picture.
But it is in that middle place that we can find real opportunity and
creativity which are always messier than the routine, the planned
out, the norm.
Let’s take a second paradox that I imagine most of us have
experienced at one time or another.
It’s possible to be lonely in the midst of a crowd.
If nothing else we experienced it as teenagers, but let’s turn that
one around as well.
We know that if we want to take control of our careers, to hone
skills, or improve our world no one can do it for us – we have to
take that step, big or small, all by ourselves. But we also know
it’s a whole lot easier if we have a crowd of supporters, folks who
help us, who have done it first, who believe in us for whatever
reason. We’re on our own in that crowd, but they help support us as
we move forward.
That’s part of what is wonderful about working in a university.
We’re in a crowd of people who believe in learning, improving
their skills and who know how important that is. You may have to
take the step alone, but you aren’t really by yourself in this
crowd. So don’t forget that when it seems hard; call up someone you
know from another department and ask them to be your cheerleader or
to tell you how they did it and learn from them how you might choose
to do it. Take those steps alone within a crowd.
This takes us to the third paradox for the day. We tend to think of
leadership as a residing in a position – president, vice-president,
director, chair - there are certain titles or spots on an
organizational chart. But here’s what I think is the definition of
a healthy organization – one in which there are leaders in every box
in the organization chart. That means for UTSA to be healthy every
person in this organization has to be a leader.
If you are saying, wait a minute, I’m not a leader at UTSA, I’m
‘Just a__________', let me share with you a thought from Parker Palmer’s
book, Let Your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation
“Even I - a person who is unfit to be president of
anything, who once galloped away from institutions on a high horse –
have come to understand that for better or worse, I lead by word and
deed simply because I am here doing what I do. If you are
here, doing what you do, then you exercise leadership of some sort.”
Which starts to get a little scary because then all of us are
responsible for the leadership in our many organizations – we impact
it in different ways, but we all have responsibility not just The
So leadership resides in one person at a time and all of us
together – how’s that for a paradox?
One of my favorite philosophers, Theodore Guisel, says it very well,
“Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot
Nothing’s going to get better, it’s not”
In case you didn’t recognize that, it’s from The Lorax by Dr.
Suess. – true about the world, UTSA, and about our individual
So there are the paradoxes for you to think about today –
to paraphrase Lao-Tzu, A journey of a thousand miles begins with a
our moving forward has to be done alone, but is done best with a
crowd of supporters.
– leadership resides in one person at a time and all of us together.
So if you want to make a difference in your life, or at UTSA, or in
the world around you don’t wait until there’s a disturbance in the
atmospheric continuum. Go ahead move forward into that messy
middle, into the world of ‘both/and’ and see what interesting
paradoxes you might find.