We are “meaning machines,” we are continually trying to make sense of the world around us by looking for symmetry, and if we can’t find it, we force a square peg into a round hole to make our meaning fit the circumstances of the situation. We crave meaning as much as eating, sleeping, and reproducing. Giving something meaning is controlling for it in our internal calculations of how the world works and how to behave in that world. However, in this search for meaning, we often skip steps, oversimplify and create false symmetry.  This article is about how dangerous that can be, the consequences of false meaning and how to avoid a life spent knowing everything (but in fact: knowing very little).

Thinking in Binary

When you’re growing up as a toddler, everything is new and exciting. You know very little about the context of your existence and a conventional approach to learning about things you encounter will be to ask “What is this thing?”. When you’re trying to understand it further, you’ll ask “What is it like?”, and if you’re extra curious that day you may ask “Well, what is it not?”, and all along the way, you’re painting a picture. You are creating a mental model of this thing, on one side you have what it is, and on the other, what it is not. You learn about boys and girls, black and white, adults and children, smart and dumb, winter and summer, good and evil…

The picture you’re painting in your head is one of opposites, and that’s fine because you have so much information to consume and internalize that any other way would be very confusing, likely impossible. However, what you’re hardwiring is a view of the world based on dichotomy.

A whole, divided into two parts, where everything must belong to one part or the other, and nothing can belong to both parts simultaneously.

Put another way, your frame of reference is one where you tend to think in binary, and for an unfortunate few, they never stop thinking this way. Unfortunate, because how we think about what we’re seeing and hearing holds tremendous power over the person we are. Let’s pretend for a second that you are a quiet person that doesn’t typically like being the center of attention, avoids big groups and being around and talking with people to be draining. You’ll be labeled an introvert, and if you were the opposite, you’d be an extrovert.

You were just put into a box, and maybe you are fine with that because it gives those behaviors meaning, but what if you were put into a different box like “crazy”, not so fun anymore – right?

The problem with binary thinking is it more often than not creates a false dichotomy, it unfairly labels and boxes individuals, forces undesired outcomes, and limits us to two choices when more often exist. Worse, it very often creates false meaning and allows us to justify bad behavior based on poor insights.

To use an example of binary that has changed in my lifetime, we’ve gone from a publicly understood and accepted gender binary to a publicly accepted lack of gender binary. What was once so explicitly binary, is now a harmonious spectrum.

Thinking in Spectrums

When you’ve painted a large enough picture for yourself about binaries, you start to gain confidence in your knowledge about the world. You begin to feel like you can control for more things thanks to the meaning you’ve discovered and the boxes you’ve created. Then one day, hopefully, the things that you previously had a good grasp on start to fall apart. You begin to realize that there wasn’t really a “moment” when you went from child to adult, and there are a lot of “grey areas.” Some people are pretty “good” but also very “evil” when they feel threatened, and the comfort and assurance that binary thinking afforded you might start slowly unwinding like a spool of yarn.

You’re making a move towards spectrum like thinking.

What was previously only good and evil, now has a million permutations of a little good and a lot of evil, or vice versa, and in between. With this new lens, you see the world as an evolving organism where everything is somewhere on its distinct relative local spectrum. You stop putting people in boxes and instead see them as beautiful unique tapestries. You open yourself up to the idea that things are not static, and that there is a dynamic nature to everything around you. Most importantly, it empowers you to have meaningful conversations and connect with people about the finer details of the human experience.

This is thinking in spectrums, and it is a powerful tool for thinking and communicating your ideas.

And so it goes: “The problem with the world is that the intelligent people are full of doubts, while the stupid ones are full of confidence.” – It’s a scary trade, lack of assuredness for another step in the direction of clarity of thought.