Beware the Binary: A Mantra for Navigating Life’s Complexity by Embracing It


“When you come to a fork in the road, take it.” 

-        Yogi Berra 

“The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.”

-        F. Scott Fitzgerald


A mentor of mine had a saying that he would often bring out in our conversations, when we were discussing something work-related and my political-analytical brain was trying to shape a complicated situation into one or two simple “A vs. B” choices.

“Beware the binary,” he would say, with a knowing and satisfied smile. It was the kind of smile that comes from a big differential in life experience, and from watching one’s conversation partner slip further away from the answers and clarity he thought were right in front of him.

This particular individual spent a lifetime working in human services, as a family therapist, a non-profit executive, a nationally recognized academic, and (more or less as a retirement gig) a county Child Welfare administrator. In other words, he spent his life with a front row seat to the infinitude of human complexity. That simple phrase—Beware the Binary—for him captured the essence of that work: the need to resist the simple breakdown, to dive headfirst into the nuance, to wade through the muck of second-guessing, and to give the process time to reveal and reckon with the complexity.

His words have stuck with me. In my personal life and in my work with coaching clients, I deploy the phrase often. To me, there are both practical and philosophical implications of the phrase.

On the practical side, it means training yourself to put up a few stop signs and flashing lights when you feel you’ve encountered a seemingly binary choice—pausing long enough to consider whether other options exist and taking them into account. Philosophically, it points to a way of moving through the world that encourages each of us to write our own script, rather than choose from among the small number of paths we see laid out for us at first glance. It is an embrace of the complex, an urge to push past the first couple of options and create the path that you want to take, even if that choice is painful or difficult in the short run.

I’ve found the concept to be applicable and meaningful in so many different contexts. I know thoughtful thinkers who’ve applied this theory to their religious faith. In relationships, both personal and professional, it can open up thinking and action that one or both parties hadn’t been able to conceive of from the outset. In politics, where so many of our decisions and choices are framed by the polarized, “us vs. them” culture and structure that’s so pervasive today, I’ve seen again and again how real things get accomplished when we can bring ourselves to look past the binary choice.

Another area where I find this concept extremely useful is in working with clients around their career path. Today I want to explore that application in a little more depth.  

Beware the Binary: Professional Life

For many of us, regardless of how committed we may be to a profession or a job, or how much that job is tied into our sense of our own identity, we end up taking a passive approach to creating the professional path we want for ourselves. I work with my Career Path Coaching clients to intentionally seek alignment between their work and their values, their strengths, and the way they want to live. When we cede that sense of control and intention around our work, we often find ourselves boxed into a corner, confronting binary choice after binary choice.

How often have you found yourself having one of these internal conversations about your job:

  • “Either I get the promotion or I’m getting a new job.”

  • “If I leave this job I don’t like, I’d have start again somewhere else from the bottom.”

  • “I could do more meaningful work, but it means making less money.”

  • “If I stay here, I’m going to burn out.”

Familiar, right? And don’t get me wrong, sometimes when we come to the binary choice after wading through the options and the complexity, it can be empowering. An ultimatum to a colleague, an employer or yourself, if you’re really ready to carry it out, can be just the kind of spark that’s needed to make a change.

But just as often, I’d argue typically more often, we encounter the binary thinking and it stops us in our tracks. We judge our own professional path according to that which has been modeled for us by others, and we start the conversation with these kinds of limiting choices. That narrows our potential options considerably.

So what to do when we find ourselves faced with this kind of choice?

Well, the first step is awareness. This is where the “Beware” part of “Beware the Binary” comes in. If we’re aware of the face that we’re facing a (potentially artificial) binary choice, we can slow down, take stock, look for other options. Even if we go ahead with one of the original two options, we’re doing it with eyes wide open, instead of by default, or even worse, totally unconsciously. This can make a huge difference.

Next, I think there are two ways to effectively encounter the binary choice.

The first is to look for a “third way.” A fairly tired and overworked term in political circles, I still think there is resonance to this idea when it comes to navigating our professional path. In my experience, whether we take it or not, exploring the “third,” the “fourth,” the “fifth” options and paths can be an empowering exercise in its own right.

Importantly, a “third way” doesn’t have to be a compromise between Option A and Option B. It certainly can be, but I think just as often, it’s more like a completely different path, forged out of territory we previously thought was off limits.

The second course of action is a variation on the first, where we look for a different path first by questioning/double-checking whether both Option A and Option B could be true. In our current meme culture, this often comes back as “Why Not Both”? If the answer to that question comes back as yes, or even maybe, then explore what that would mean.

So, taking a “Beware the Binary”/“Look for the Third Way”/”Why Not Both” approach to some of the questions above, we can do some helpful reframing:

  •  Maybe there is an opportunity to do entirely different work, within your current organization.

  • Maybe instead of a promotion in title, you can get negotiate a raise and additional vacation time.

  • Maybe there’s a way to make more money AND do work that’s more in line with your values.

  • Maybe you can leverage your experience so that a move into a new field doesn’t require starting from the mail room.

  • Maybe you need a few months in the mail room to clear your head!

Our lives – personal, spiritual, political, professional – are built entirely out of a series of choices we make, starting with our choice (tougher on snowy days like today as I write this) to get out of bed in the morning. Binary choices are often—not always—reflective of the kinds of self-taught, and limiting, beliefs that can too often restrict our lives and hold us back.

First through awareness, and then active reframing and questioning of these choices, we can open ourselves to a wider spectrum of possibilities and options. No matter which path you take, choosing it with clarity, from among the widest possible group of choices, will lead to greater fulfillment down the road.

Does this resonate? Want to explore better alignment in your own professional life? Schedule a free consult today!

The Journey from Judgment to Curiosity


Any one of my clients will tell you that one of the themes I come back to over and over again in coaching work it the power that lies in shifting our mindset. In particular, there’s one mindset shift above all others that I think holds tremendous potential for healing, peace, balance and fulfillment, whether that’s in our relationships with others, in our work lives, or in our internal dialogue with ourselves. That is this shift from judgment to curiosity.

Let’s pick apart these two concepts a bit more, and then we’ll get into how this shift may be relevant in your life.

One place I like to start when talking about the role of feelings and emotions in our lives is to characterize the qualities of the emotions, in as much detail as I can. Understanding what the emotions are like, how they work and where they often lead is an important precursor to any work around changing how we use them and react to them.

Qualities of Judgment

Judgment to me has several qualities: a negative charge, a tendency to lead to spiraling, and a stickiness. Here’s what I mean:

Negative Charge: if we think of emotions as having a particular charge in one direction, positive or negative, judgment is clearly a negatively charged emotion. It generally involves making us feel worse, not better, at least in the long run. It makes its object smaller, rather than lifting it up or leading to growth.

Spiraling: judgment also has a quality of spiraling downward or out of control, where some judgment leads to more judgment, and reconciliation and peace gets further and further away. Arthur Brooks has written about this dynamic within our political discourse: he speaks convincingly about the dangers of contempt, which I’d consider a particularly nasty form of judgment, characterized by dismissal of the actual worth of the object of the judgment. He lays out how contempt leads to permanent, irreconcilable separation, and contrasts that with anger, which he believes naturally circles back around to reconciliation. (Brooks’ discussion of all this with Ezra Klein is well worth a listen.)

Stickiness: despite being a negatively charged emotion that can spiral out of control, judgment has a real appeal. It can make us feel righteous and superior to cast judgment on others. There’s a comfort and safety in judgment that comes from the re-affirmation of pre-existing thoughts and beliefs. For these reasons I’d consider it a “sticky” emotion – one that we can know intellectually is harmful, yet one that we return to over and over.

Qualities of Curiosity

Curiousity, on the other hand, carries some really different qualities. A few important ones are: neutrality, being a source of motivation and bringing renewal. Here’s what I mean by those:

  • Neutral/centering: You might think that since I’m posing curiosity as an alternative to judgment, it would have a positive charge, as opposed to the negative charge we ascribe to feelings of judgment. Yet I think curiosity is better characterized as neutral—and there’s a real power in that neutrality. Not knowing what we’re going to find is neither positive nor negative, but building up our ability to be curious leads us to greater openness, which leads to growth.

  • Motivating: cultivating our own curiosity is a precursor to personal and professional growth, because curiosity is an amazingly sustainable motivator. In short, doing things because we’re interested in them has way more staying power than doing things because we’re “supposed to” or we “should.” In contrast to the spiraling outward quality of judgment, curiosity brings us back to the table, and back to our own center, again and again.

  • Renewal: returning to curiosity again and again can be like the fountain of youth for our souls. Have you ever heard the term “beginner’s mind”? It refers to the mindset we access when we try to develop a new skill or learn a new practice. It’s this feeling that I come back to when I think of the way curiosity can bring renewal—it lets us start again, clean slate, whenever we want.

Making the Shift: a Three-Step Process

So, with some understanding of the qualities of each of these feelings, I want to suggest that one of the most powerful things each of us can do to make personal and professional progress is to make a mindset shift from judgment to curiosity. This is easier said than done, but it can be truly profound.

Making the shift involves several steps:

  • first, identifying the judgment using a mindful awareness of when judgment is present. Noticing the word “should” is often a dead giveaway here.

  • second, reframing the situation through the lens of curiosity; and

  • third, taking an action—making one step, however small, in the direction where that curiosity points.

Each of these steps is important, and can be helpful on its own. But the real effect of the shift only comes when all three are used together. For instance, it’s important and useful to be mindful enough to identify our judgment, but if we stop there and neither reframe nor take action, we’re not going to make much progress. By the same token, if we just act, without mindfully identifying the judgment or reframing through curiosity, it might help in small ways or in the short run, but it’s unlikely to be as meaningful or sustainable as when we’ve first done the other two steps.

So let’s think about this in the context of a couple of common situations.

Professional/Interpersonal: Re-engaging a Difficult Relationship with Curiosity

Let’s say you’re in a job and are feeling disconnected from your boss. You feel like you’re not getting the management support, or personalized attention, or direct feedback that you “should” be getting. You’re thinking about leaving the job (which otherwise you may like) because you want better support and more investment in your own professional development.

So let’s go through the steps:

  1. Identify the judgment: can you spot it? It’s right there with the word “should”. You’re feeling judgmental of your boss because things are one way, and you want them to be a different way.

    (IMPORTANT INTERJECTION: Just because you identify that you’re approaching a situation with judgment, that doesn’t mean you’re wrong. We can get really sidetracked in this conversation by going into what’s “wrong” and “right”. For our purposes, it doesn’t matter, because we’re trying to look at changing the mindset we approach these situations with, not the facts or the history of the situation themselves. Ok, back to the program.)

  2. Reframe using curiosity: what about your boss’s own background might have led to this way of being? Was she taught management, or did she just excel at her last position and get promoted? What is it about your own career trajectory, or your personal circumstances, that makes getting direct feedback or professional support (again, a totally valid thing to want) so important right now? How could you approach this situation without judgment?

  3. Take a step: in this case, I think a direct conversation with the boss is warranted. A humble request for additional support, a clear set of things you’d like more of and reasons why. If you can truly approach a conversation like this as sharing your own reflections on what YOU need, rather than telling him/her where he/she has fallen short, you’re likely to get much closer to the result you want. Approaching it as a partnership, a chance for both of you to benefit, is another important tactic here, arising from the curiosity.

Importantly, this process is a practice. It typically needs to be done over and over and over again to truly be effective. Things with your boss might not change right away, but a) you’ll feel better for having been both mindful and direct, and b) you’ll have a basis/frame of reference to return to that conversation if and when you need to.

Judging Ourselves: Applying Curiosity to Our Negative Self-Talk

Probably the most powerful and meaningful place to apply this mindset shift in our lives is when it comes to our own dialogue with ourselves. When we slow down and actually listen to the voices in our own heads, it can be shocking how negative and judgmental they often are.

For me, as for many people, this dynamic is perhaps most pitched/extreme when it comes to how I feel about my body. I’ve struggled with weight for most of my life, and in the last number of years, have really focused in on understanding the ways I’ve been judging myself (and projecting that self-judgment onto others) when it comes to how I look and what that means.

(for some great reading on this topic in particular, I recommend Michael Hobbes’ recent piece in Huffington Post, and Taffy Brodesser-Akner’s piece from last year in the New York Times Magazine. Both have helped me enormously.)

So, let’s try the process:

  1. Identify the judgment: this can be hard when it comes to internal dialogue, but the same first step applies: look for “should”. Or, as is often the case for me with food/weight/body issues, “shouldn’t”. I shouldn’t eat that, I should exercise more, etc. A wise person I know calls this the “Greek Chorus of Shoulds” and it’s usually right there below the surface, screaming in our ear. When it comes to internal dialogue, it can be especially helpful to actually physically write out what these messages are.

  2. Reframe using curiosity: one particularly effective way to take a curious, non-judgmental approach to our own self-talk is to imagine a close friend who is struggling with the same issue. How would we speak to that person? What advice, or comforting words, would we offer them? How does that contrast with the way that you’re speaking to yourself? Assuming your self-talk is much more aggressive and harsh, why is it that you’re more inclined to treat yourself harshly than you would a friend?

  3. Take a step: try out, and practice, a different form of self-talk. For me, an important aspect of this is to acknowledge the complexity and difficulty of the issue when I find myself in moments of self-judgment. It’s also an opportunity to practice self-forgiveness.

A last word about self-talk and this dynamic. Like the interpersonal shift, it’s a practice that requires coming back again and again. But there’s one thing I want to nip in the bud. Many of us hesitate to back off of self-judgment because we feel it’s “letting ourselves off the hook,” and that if we’re kind to ourselves, the thing we are feeling judgment about will then spiral out of control. If this is what you’re doing, it’s important to recognize that this reaction is its own form of judgment. Ask yourself: how true is it, based on your experience, that self-compassion will lead to things getting worse? How can I approach this with curiosity? Remember, judgment is the spiraling emotion.

Simple to Try, Complicated to Live

There are clearly many layers to this idea of the powerful mindset shift from judgment to curiosity. Each of the concepts involved warrants its own blog post, and has mountains of sociological and psychological research behind it.

So I have one request, if you’ve made it this far:

Let go of all the complexity, and walk away from this post with just the two words. Judgment. Curiosity. And the next time you’re feeling stressed, down, overwhelmed, detached or in some kind of rut, just come back to those two words, and think about where you are within that larger mindset shift. Awareness is the first step on the path toward building this into a lifelong tool.

If you’re interested to talk more about how these and other concepts can benefit you personally and professionally through working with me as a coach, reach out today and set up a complimentary consult.




Join the Rebellion by Hitting "Pause"


One of the ideas I hold close to the center of my work as a coach is the idea that for each of us—but for those engaged in mission-based work in particular—practicing self-care and work-life balance is not just another good idea, but is in fact the key to serving the causes we care about, as fully and effectively as possible

This is particularly true in our present moment as the pace of life quickens and the opportunities for distraction multiply and spin out of control. Distraction and feelings of overwhelm not only make us feel out of balance or underwater. They conspire to sap our energy so we’re less present, less engaged, and less able to be of service to the things we value most—whether that’s our relationships, our health, or the mission of our work.

With that as the understanding, I like to think of self-care as a rebellion against the forces of overwhelm, distraction, 24-hour news, traffic, twitter, and general feelings of chaos that seem to be infecting our daily lives. I personally find that metaphor so helpful in shifting how I feel my own self-care: from feeling like just another item on a to-do list (to get guilty about if you don’t do it) to something to revel in, be proud of, and look forward to. Plus, rebels are sexy.

So, how to fight for the rebellion?
There are a number of tools in the toolboxes of self-care and balance, and I plan to explore some of them in greater depth in future posts. For today, I want to touch on one that’s perhaps the simplest, and one of the most effective, tools we have: pausing.

That’s it. Hit pause. 

It sounds simple and it is, but it contains such complexity and power that I want to dig in a little bit and explore. 

So what to I mean by pausing? At its most basic, it is: stop whatever you’re doing, close your eyes, inhale for five seconds and exhale for five seconds. Feel what that feels like. That’s it. Do it again a little later.

Mix it up if you like – instead of closing your eyes, focus them on one thing (the sky works well.) Take two breaths. Do a little stretch. But don’t overcomplicate this – the point is to bring yourself out of the past or the future and into the present. 

So much of our time is spent somewhere else on the control panel (play, fast forward, skip, rewind) that we very often forget that it’s the pause button that we need most. We can jump all the way to the end, start over, back up, speed up, or just get swept away in the “play button” mode of letting our lives unfold. Each of these characteristics of living has value, and can serve us. But I’d argue that the benefits of building a practice of pausing, or as a client put it to me recently, even a “policy of pausing,” can be incredibly energizing, and ultimately improve our ability to live and work the way we want.

So what’s so good about this tool?

  • It helps re-center us in our bodies, which are often way more aware than even our minds are of what’s creating stress and where it’s living inside of us.
  • Counterintuitively, by just slowing down, we can shift ourselves into a lower gear where we get more done with less effort. It can make us more efficient and help us make fewer mistakes.
  • Pausing can help us quickly re-calibrate our internal measures of how much more we can take on. It can make it easier to say no—a huge challenge and an important skill, especially in mission-based work.
  • With a well-developed practice of pausing, we can become better leaders. We create the space to make decisions not from our impulses and fears, but based on our values. We have the space to develop a full and clear view of the situation, and the energy to explain our thinking and get buy-in from those we're leading.

Together, all of these benefits build on one another. Much in the same way that what we’re rebelling against – overwhelm, distraction, ever-increasing pace and ever more-limited space—can build on one another to throw us off. The beauty of pausing is that, even though it’s an act of rebellion against these things, it works completely differently, by restoring your sense of presence, balance and centeredness. 

Give it a try for a few days. Experiment and pay attention. Let me know how it goes.

Welcome to Open Way Coaching!

Thanks for making it here to Open Way Coaching. I'm John Sawyer, and Open Way is the business home of my life and leadership coaching practice. Have a look around to learn more about me, to get a better sense of how coaching works and how it might help you, and please do get in touch to learn more. 

I couldn't be more excited about opening this business and all that lies ahead. I became interested in coaching after experiencing its benefits firsthand, in both a personal and professional context. It helped me see my own challenges in a new light, and approach my work and my life with greater mindfulness, calm and ease. Since that time, in myself and others, over and over I've seen the benefits of good coaching work their magic, as people transform their own lives to align more with their values and highest purpose. It's an amazing thing to see, and I'm so excited to be a part of that change for others. 

Since making the decision to pursue coaching more formally, I've undertaken formal training and have nearly completed professional certification through IPEC and the International Coach Federation. With those certifications pending, I'm excited to offer discounted rates to clients who begin our work together now. Visit my contact page or drop me an email to set up a 20-30 minute complimentary consult, where we can connect, get to know one another a bit better, talk logistics and see if working together might be a good fit.