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