Jordan, Escher, and the “Janus Face” of Rationality

How the dual nature of rationality leads to success.

Posted Mar 13, 2018

Michael Jordan is widely regarded as the greatest basketball player of all time. Through his first decade with the NBA, Jordan’s success was based on physical pounding—he dominated the paint by driving to the basket. As he got older, however, his amazing agility and athleticism began to wane, and he had to reconsider how to maximize his performance based on this new reality. To do this, he adjusted his approach and “redefined” himself by working on his post-up game. He then began to gradually compensate by acquiring and perfecting new skills and techniques, such as his legendary bump and fade-away jump shot, which became his trademark.

Jordan’s early career exhibits an “instrumentally rational” approach to his game, as he used the most effective means required to perfect a particular goal—his drive to the basket. Later in his career, however, as the driving strategy could no longer lead to success, he took a “critically rational” approach, putting his entire strategy into question. As a result, he went through a process of innovation, turning toward a new post-up player strategy and incorporating new techniques such as the fade-away. Once he had a handle on this new approach, he could again dominate the court.

It’s easy to say that in both instances, Jordan thought rationally about his style, but what does “rational” actually mean? Over the centuries, philosophers have distinguished between more than 20 different meanings for the term “rationality” as applied to the social sciences. In modern times, however, beginning with the rise of industrialism a-la Henry Ford, rationality is mainly understood as the effectiveness of actions, reflecting a “rationality of means”: individuals are viewed as having certain goals that they want to realize. To this end, a course of action is chosen that should be instrumental, bringing about the realization of that goal; this course of action is considered to be most effective, thus rational.

Instrumental rationality has to do with how effectively one applies the means toward accomplishing a certain goal (e.g., Jordan’s success). I call this notion “maximization through optimization,” according to which  “smart” athletes, leaders, or business professionals are expected to use available means as efficiently as possible in order to solve a given problem. When such a rational approach fails, however, a new form of critical and creative thinking becomes necessary to solve that problem. Such a solution, however, may sometimes look as if it were strange or “irrational.” 

Let’s consider the Dutch graphic artist M. C. Escher (1898-1972), who became famous for inventing the “impossible reality.” His success started with his 1937 print “Still Life and Street.” From then on, his artistic expression was not derived from observations of the world around him, but from inventions formed in his own imaginative mind. One famous example is “Belvedere” (1958), a lithograph that paradoxically shows a plausible-looking building that is actually an impossible object. Another is “Ascending and Descending” (1960), in which one group of monks eternally climbs a set of stairs, while another descends it, creating an infinite loop in a building that would be impossible to construct. Then there’s the brilliant “Waterfall” (1961), in which water flows endlessly in a circular course—another pictorially “impossible” construction.

Escher’s works are often related to the nature of opposites. For example, the “Belvedere” and “Ascending and Descending” both demonstrate that what seems absurd in relation to our normal experiences may appear as a logical possibility to our senses, and vice versa. In “Waterfall,” no error can be detected in any of the elements comprising the lithograph, yet the whole is impossible—even though it may at first appear paradoxically “logical”—because of the manner in which the parts relate to each other. In Escher’s art, he brilliantly demonstrated that “rational” and “irrational” are often unclear. At times the seemingly rational is, it the end, irrational, whereas at other times the opposite is true: what seems at first sight to be irrational turns out to be the most rational.

Jordan and Escher may not regularly be compared with one another, but what we can learn from both is paramount: the two modes of rationality are not contradicting opposites, but rather, like the Roman “Janus Face,” complementary. Just as Escher worked with the idea of opposites in mind, so did Jordan in how he took two seemingly opposing approaches to playing throughout his career—without one, the other could have never existed. Thus, to stay at the top of our game—whatever that may be—the two modes of rationality should be used complementarily, as both approaches are required at times to succeed and attain our goals.