Nov 292014

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Dr. Earl R. Smith II

Cognitive dissonance is an uncomfortable feeling caused by holding conflicting ideas simultaneously. The theory of cognitive dissonance proposes that people have a motivational drive to reduce dissonance. They do this by changing their attitudes, beliefs, and actions. Dissonance is also reduced by justifying, blaming, and denying. It is one of the most influential and extensively studied theories in social psychology. A closely related term, cognitive disequilibrium, was coined by Jean Piaget to refer to the experience of a discrepancy between something new and something already known or believed. (Source: WikipediA)


One of the most common challenges that my coaching clients can face is the conflict between the world at they find it and the legion of consultants and ‘experts’ selling simple-minded interpretations of it. Any experienced entrepreneur learns early in the game that the world does not dance to a single tune. Success in complex situations depends on a ability to hold conflicting ideas simultaneously in focus without resolving them to a single framework. When a client is the vertigo which results from attempts to simplify complex situations and actually begins to ‘simplify’, I ask them if they are interested in becoming a consultant or an entrepreneur. The answer is almost always ‘entrepreneur’.

The distinction is not meaningless. In fact, the ability to operate within certain kinds of dissonance is one of the principal indicators of entrepreneurial success. The motivational drive to reduce dissonance is an echo of adolescence. A harking back to the time that Santa Clause, the Easter Bunny and Tooth Fairy actually existed.

And would it have been worth while, after all,
After the cups, the marmalade, the tea,
Among the porcelain, among some talk of you and me,
Would it have been worth while,
To have bitten off the matter with a smile,
To have squeezed the universe into a ball
To roll it toward some overwhelming question,
To say: “I am Lazarus, come back from the dead,
Come back to tell you all, I shall tell you all” –
If one settling a pillow by her head,
should say: “That is not what I meant at all.
That is not it, at all.”

The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, T.S. Elliot

And what does this have to do with entrepreneurial success? At their core, successful entrepreneurs are immune from certain kinds of cognitive dissonance and highly susceptible to other kinds. You see, in order to understand the actual operation of cognitive dissonance you need to accept a fair amount of dissonance. This kind of intellectual Möbius band will drive you to distraction if you spend too much time trying to understand it and too little enjoying its benefits. Sometimes intellectual understanding gets int he way of living experience. Perhaps an example for a recent coaching engagement will help.

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