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!