This is one of "22
virus definitions" (thought-mistakes that cause ineffectiveness
and unnecessary negative emotions).
IS probably the most dangerous and one of the most common thought-mistakes.
This is thinking in black-or-white terms. Its also called
all-or-nothing thinking. The real world has very few absolutes.
Very few issues very few causes of setbacks are
black or white. They consist of innumerable shades of gray.
Becky thinks if shes not a millionaire,
shes a failure. Of course, if shes not a millionaire,
this belief will make her feel bad unnecessarily. Jeff thinks
he must either be his ideal weight or hes a fat slob. This
kind of all-or-nothing, one-extreme-or-the-other thinking will
cause him unnecessary misery whenever he is not at his ideal
Edmund Burke wrote, Nobody made a
greater mistake than he who did nothing because he could only
do a little. If you do nothing because you can only do
a little, that's based on extremist thinking. Specifically, it
is the mistake of all-or-nothing thinking. It makes you defeated
unless things are ideal, and since life is almost never ideal,
it is a way of thinking that curtails positive action and prevents
Thinking in an extremist way makes it easier
to think about things. You can seperate issues cleanly, and then
position yourself on one side or the other, end of story, no
more thought required.
But reality is full of shades of gray,
so although youve made your task easier, youve greatly
increased your chances of being wrong. As a congressman once
said on the issue of whiskey:
If you mean the demon drink that poisons
the mind, pollutes the body, desecrates family life, and inflames
sinners, then I am against it. But if you mean the elixer of
Christmas cheer, the shield against winter chill, the taxable
potion that puts needed funds into public coffers to comfort
little crippled children, then Im for it. This is my position
and I will not compromise.
Almost every issue is like that. But the
way our brains are set up, it keeps pulling us to one side or
another in an effort to avoid living with the ambiguity. But
ambiguity is reality. It would be in your best interest to live
in that ambiguity, although this is difficult to do. But just
because you dont do it perfectly doesnt mean its
not worth doing at all. (wink)
Alistair Ostell, a researcher in England,
tested school principles to find out to what degree their thinking
was black-or-white. Heres what he found: People who frequently
thought in black-or-white terms had more emotional problems and
more health problems.
People who thought more in shades of gray
were less stressed by their jobs, enjoyed better health, and
got more enjoyment from their work.
There are real consequences to the accuracy
of your thinking.
Learn to catch yourself making this mistake
(extremism) and learn to recognize it as a mistake, and you will
avoid some negative emotions you dont need.
I once did a speech in Toastmasters (a
club that helps you learn to speak in public) on the day before
Saint Patricks Day. The assignment was to give an inspirational
speech. I wrote and memorized a presentation about Saint
Patrick, and then rehearsed it thirty-seven times start to finish,
flawlessly. (I actually counted because I wanted to see how many
times it took to know a talk by heart.)
A key element of my speech was the mystery:
The audience wouldnt find out I was talking about Saint
Patrick until the end.
But the Toastmaster that day (the Master
of Ceremonies), in her opening remarks, told the brief story of Saint Patrick essentially
summarizing my talk before I gave it. That really threw me off.
When I got up to speak, I said, The Toastmaster gave away
my punch line. Then I felt embarrassed Id criticized
her. By then I was really distracted and couldnt think
of the next line of my speech.
It was a crummy speech and Im sure
it was uncomfortable for the audience to endure.
In the Toastmasters meetings, after you
talk, someone comes up to evaluate your speech. My evaluator
had a lot of negative things to say.
For someone who had been anxious about
speaking, this hit me pretty hard. I went home feeling embarrassed
and ashamed of myself, and really down about the whole thing.
And you know what that means. Youd
better know what that means by now! Whenever you feel down, check
As soon as I got home, I checked my explanations,
and I found two thoughts that qualified as irrational. They were
the main source of my bad feelings: Im not cut out
for speaking, and Im not an inspirational speaker.
Both of these are the mistake of extremist, black-or-white thinking.
After I uncovered those, I came to my senses.
I stopped feeling bad and I realized I had simply made a mistake.
I should never memorize a speech. It just doesnt work.
I also realized that if I ever had an element of mystery in a
speech again, I would check with the master of ceremonies to
make sure nobody would give away my punch line.
In other words, after realizing that my
fretting and negative emotions were being generated by unreasonable
thoughts, I stopped fretting and actually solved the problem.
After uncovering the two extremist assumptions,
I no longer felt demoralized about my speech, or about public
speaking in general. My thinking became more rational and more
effective and quickly because I knew what to look
See the complete list of definitions: The 22 Virus Definitions.