The Problem With Binary Thinking

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It’s difficult to know where to focus these days, with so many challenges created by the pandemic, with so many aspects of our lives impacted - from our health to our ability to move around, pay our bills, care for our children, peacefully assemble, even vote. We are trying to find new ways to make our voices heard, and the frustration and fatigue is very real; the desire to give up, normal. Finding grace has become a daily challenge and, at times, a chore that feels impossible. And even as we are working to find new ways to operate and cope with the mounting stresses of this moment, we are also having a national reckoning about our history, our equity and our national identity.

I was talking with a colleague from across the aisle recently who was lamenting the challenges of civil communication and compromise, whether it was better to express something controversial or keep silent to avoid criticism. This is something I hear a lot. That we have lost the ability to communicate, that we no longer honor civility, that we are too divisive, too political, too divided to ever hear or understand anyone outside of ourselves.

A couple of months ago, I was speaking with a class and I was asked what I should tell our students who had a plan for their lives, a plan that has been so immensely disrupted. The moderator confessed she did not have an answer to this question. I had two. First, look to the creatives. They went to work on solutions immediately on how to pivot and change the models to do things differently. Second, accept where we are. Accept this reality so that you are only moving forward. We are all in a stage of mourning because our brains are hardwired to see change as loss, but once we accept that things are different, we won’t waste precious time and physical and emotional energy trying to get back to what was, but instead we can focus on what can be.

One of the biggest challenges we have to conquer, the stumbling block that so often stands in the way of innovation, is binary thinking. It’s ingrained in our culture, in our work, our leisure, our politics and our problem-solving. Binary thinking is always putting things in terms of two options that are usually mutually exclusive; all the possibilities are either option A or option B, and not both. Heroes and villains, good and bad, right and wrong, Democrat and Republican.

Time and again throughout this crisis, I’ve seen us paralyzed to act because we didn’t know which choice was the right one, as though there was a right and wrong answer, and without considering the wider implications. I talk about big picture a lot, because as a theater artist, it was always my job to have the overarching vision. It’s what made me valuable to companies in crisis because I could quickly identify and triage what wasn’t working. I called it “big picture,” but the more scientific term is full-spectrum thinking - the ability to seek patterns and clarity outside, across, beyond, or maybe even without any boxes or categories while resisting false certainty and simplistic binary choices.

There is another greater value to full-spectrum thinking, because it gives us a little distance from the outcome. The challenge with binary thinking is that it requires winners and losers. No one wants to be on the losing team, and often we are left with emotional whiplash when our heroes become villains, our villains become heroes, and it prevents us from processing the complexity of people or the comprehensiveness of policy. The reality of every decision is that what benefits some hurts others, and if we don’t have the full picture, the full spectrum, we can’t work to mitigate the most damage and satisfy the greatest range of concerns.

I am not asking you to suddenly change how you think, but I am asking that you try it a little because no one is coming to save us; we have to save ourselves, and we have the solutions, we just don’t know it yet. Much like the truth lies somewhere in between what he said and what he said, the best solutions, as well as the compassion, and ultimately constructive communication and change, lie in the in-between spaces. Because between black and white are not simply shades of gray but all the other colors of the spectrum.

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