All or none: the power of black-and-white thinking.

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Warning: This post may offend those who like to live life in moderation. I am not one of those people.

Here goes.

The key to success and happiness in life is to adopt more black-and-white thinking.

Wait, what? What about all of the “gray areas”? Isn’t it true that nothing is either black nor white, but somewhere in between? And what about moderation?

Yes! Almost everything IS gray. Which is why getting a little more black-and-white about things can be a good thing. It can push us into a darker gray, or a lighter gray, depending on what we value and want to achieve. We’re all humans, and with being a human comes the inevitability of human error. We’re destined to fall somewhere in the gray area…but why not try to make it to somewhere on one or another end of the gray spectrum?

For me, adopting slightly more black-and-white thinking about things–especially things that pertain to my biggest, most “extreme” dreams–can be incredibly useful, as long as I truly listen to my body while doing so. An almost unavoidable outcome of being just a tad more black-and-white is falling more into the realm of extreme people rather than those living in moderation. But is that necessarily such a bad thing, if I’m happy being one of the “extreme” people?

Our society places value in living in moderation and “finding balance” between all aspect of one’s life. While balance can at times be the key to keeping an especially hectic life manageable, I’m not sure it’s always the right solution for everyone. I think that for some of us, living moderately is a recipe for stagnation. Chasing down big dreams requires big, not moderate efforts. And at its most malignant, extolling the virtues of “living in moderation” is a really excellent and clever way to pardon ourselves for undesirable habits or traits.

I say, blah. Living life in the middle of the gray area is a recipe for a gray experience.

Living life in the black-and-white–well, that’s a whole other story. Life in extremes is a tumultuous, adventurous, fulfilling mixture of giving 200% and recovering 200%. The balance between the two makes it possible, but the existence on one extreme or another is what makes it worthwhile–and it is a sweet existence indeed.

In psychology, the concept of black-and-white thinking is often referred to as “splitting,” also known as “all-or-nothing thinking.” While I do firmly believe that utilizing black-and-white thinking at times optimally hijacks our brains to our advantage, I do not suggest taking it to the extremes that manifest in Borderline Personality Disorder.

Over the past decade or so, nothing has taught me the power of black-and-white thinking more tangibly than sport. Simply put, in this arena, using polarities yields results. Training days are either incredibly easy or incredibly challenging. In fact, Runner’s World magazine recently published an article in its October 2013 issue titled, “Benefits of Polarized Training.” Nutrition, to the athlete, is either medicinal or malignant: some foods hinder performance, while others foster it. Thinking in terms of good vs. bad, exertion vs. recovery, full effort vs. surrender is the linchpin to success and fulfilling experiences in sport–and it seems to extrapolate pretty darn well to other aspects of life as well.

I’ve run this idea of “the power of all-or-none thinking” past a few friends over the years, and have received more negative, if not mixed, responses to my “insane,” “impractical” theory than almost anything else I’ve proposed. Everyone, it seems, wants to err on the side of gray–or, the way I see it, on the side of caution. This is disappointing to me. While I believe that gray is often the inevitable solution to moral dilemmas and perhaps orthopedic problems, I don’t think gray is something to actively seek out for myself.

The ones who seem to be best capable of grasping the positive applications of black-and-white thinking are those who have struggled with addiction. I think vegan Ultraman and Epic 5 triathlete Rich Roll said it best in his book, Finding Ultra:

“When I decided to change my diet, I initially experimented with a vegetarian diet. Why? Not because I read a bunch of books and concluded it was the healthiest approach. It was attractive because it was so black and white. In recovery, you are either using or you are sober—no middle ground. As a vegetarian, you are either eating meat or you are not. I could wrap my brain around that.”

Rich seems to understand how the brain works, on both an experiential and theoretical level. The neuroscience definitely speaks in favor of black-and-white thinking in behavior modification. If we really want to change something about ourselves, then we have to change our brains (perhaps this is a form of biohacking, if you will). The building blocks of our nervous system, the neurons, function on an all-or-none principal: either they fire in response to something, or they don’t. The action potential doesn’t “just kind of fire” or fire less robustly in proportion to a stimulus. Even a tiny, minuscule droplet of impetus can set an entire neural pathway ablaze with activity.

Every day, I consciously make black-and-white decisions for myself. To others, this manifests as “extreme” discipline, but for me, this way of thinking has trampled down some pretty well-worn neural networks. I either wake up at 4:30 a.m. and kick butt, or I sleep in until 8 and take it easy. I either put in several hours of base miles for the day, or I sit in bed and read a book from cover to cover. Listening to my body is without question a key within all of this, but assuming I’m feeling well, it’s going to be a 4:30 a.m. day, darnit!

My general paradigm is this: every day, I try to reinforce more black-and-white thinking with myself, while simultaneously trying to adopt less black-and-white thinking with others and my external world. This is what keeps me reliable, disciplined, and true to myself, and also prevents me from ever feeling too heavily let down by anything outside of me.

I think Dean Karnazes, the “Ultramarathon Man,” said it best when he wrote: “My suspicion is that, like me, most of you reading these pages are drawn to extremes. Moderation bores you. You seek challenges and adventures that dwell on the outer edges. The path of most resistance is not a route often traveled.”

Dwelling on the outer edges sounds pretty fun to me. What do you think?


4 thoughts on “All or none: the power of black-and-white thinking.

  1. I came by your blog via a facebook link on “dating an endurance athlete”. I found the post amusing but agreed with the ultra runner who posted comments about differences in the culture surrounding tri athletes and ultra trail running. Maybe black and white thinking is where they meet or perhaps where they diverge.

    On race day what is your mind set, “Do or die?? Win or lose?? All or nothing??”

    If so then what is the value of what you have done, both in preparation and on actual race day if you don’t “win”. Are you able to enjoy the journey, find the silver lining “met some really cool people on the course”, “didn’t do well overall but my swim went pretty well” or does an extreme black and white philosophy keep you from fully appreciating all the good in the middle.

    Obviously I have some extreme to me, I run Ultra’s after all. My last race was the Highest Elevation Ultra in the world, some 138 miles through the Himalayas and I just signed up for a 200 mile race on the mountain trails surrounding Lake Tahoe. But even though I do what people consider extreme events, I doubt people would consider me a very extreme person. I don’t really train that much, I run an hour a day during the week and a few hours on the weekends. Most people are surprised I’m an athlete (I certainly don’t look or act like one). I don’t wake up early to work out, which means I mostly run on my own. It seems the world has determined people must run in the morning when its dark and cold for some reason. I’ll usually find a time in the late afternoon after work and before dinner. Sometimes not and I’ll run very late when everyone is sleeping or just skip the day. In the large scheme of things a single day off isn’t going to impact you whereas one day to many certainly will. I don’t keep track of miles, pace, or any of those other numbers people talk about. If I use GPS its to help me find my way back to my car when exploring new trails. Training is really me finding cool places to run and seeing what I can explore in my hour. Sometimes I run fast, sometimes I run slow and others times I stop and watch the sunset from on top of the mountain (and that counts as part of my hour). I am not doing any Yoga or power exercises, I don’t do core work. I don’t go to the gym. I don’t do any sort of cross training unless you count walking the dogs. Speaking of my dog, she’s also my coach. I don’t have any fancy gear. Any tech shirt I own has come from a race. People in India thought I was crazy when I did the race in local Ladakh wear. I figured if it’s was good enough for the people who had lived there for thousands of years it’d work just fine for me. Basically, I’m just out there doing the things I love, running while taking in the environment, and observing the world. The results don’t matter to me, its really about enjoying the journey.

    I’m sure you’re thinking that’s great for you but I’m actually training to do well in my events not bumble around for 12 hours…. and this is why I am writing this…

    I think you may be holding yourself back because the focus seems to be the goal rather then journey. The fulfillment comes from success in the activity, not the activity itself. I am not saying that you don’t enjoy running, swimming and biking; (and I remember I don’t know you and I could be way off as I’m just protecting from a snap shot of blog entries)only that the love for those things that initially brought you into endurance sports may be overshadowed by a black and white view which overlooks the most fundamental aspects of what you are doing.

    To put it another way, your extreme philosophy isn’t extreme enough. Before I even start a race I know I’ve won. I’ve put myself in a position to do something I love, in a place I’ve always wanted to do it (I don’t just run races to run races, I pick races that are in locations I want to experience running). I am going to see some amazing things and experience those things with amazing people. My performance in the event, my time, place have no bearing on the fulfillment taking part in the event gives me.

    I believe having this type of love for what you do is the greatest factor in doing well particularly in endurance sports. People that genuinely love what they do, tend to do it well and even if they don’t do well, its impossible to discourage them from continuing to do it. I’ve found that its these people with a true passion for what they do regardless of how much or little talent the world says they have, will never give up and they will continue to grow and improve (often surpassing those we think as being the better athletes: continuing to thrive while others burn out of the sport).

    So yes, dream big, dream HUGE!! But not of results or goals, wins or loses – Never in black or white. Know that you’ve won, Dream of the fantastic journeys you will undertake… experience the places and the people while you are there.

    GEez, when the heck did I become such a hippie. Oh well, not sure why I felt compelled to sudden write all this.. Anyway I hope you or someone else finds it helpful.



    1. Alex,

      Thank you for such a valuable insight! Your perspective is refreshing and unique–I’ll consider it when I’m on my next trail run with my dog (who is also my coach, by the way). :]

      My tendency toward (relatively) blacker and whiter thinking at times had been a useful adjuvant to my keeping myself accountable and motivated. But I can definitely see the possible pitfalls of this. After all, everyone is different, and some people thrive off of stricter regimens where others may crumble.

      Your words are inspiring, because I have always seen myself as a natural back-of-the-packer, and have to work really hard to get to the middle of the pack. To know that heart is what will help carry someone like me through a long endurance event gives me hope.

      Sports psychology is an interesting topic and when I first clicked “publish” on this post my heart rose to my throat, as I’d feared I’d opened up a rather controversial can of worms. Perhaps some people will benefit from this post, but perhaps others are better off considering the perspective you’ve countered below it. I’m appreciative of that.

      Congrats on all of your ultras!



      1. Thank you for the kind comments, don’t read to much into the BS I say or write. Not sure there really is a best or worst way of doing things, just the way we are doing them and using what works for us at the time. When a way of doing or thinking stops working, we tend to change it (or at least one would hope).

        I’ll continue to follow your blog and endurance adventures, I enjoy your writing and wish you happiness and enjoyment on those adventurers. I’ll do my best not to post essays in your comments.



      2. No, I love essays in my comments! Especially insightful ones like yours. What good is a blog if not a thought-provoking space to share ideas?

        I’ll try to keep my posts interesting and/or entertaining, and value your input. :]


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