The trap and the truth

“What are your choices, if someone puts a gun to your head?”

This is a question posed by senior partner Harvey Spector to his protege Mike Ross, two protagonists in Suits. Ross is explaining how a rival executive had coerced him to do something against Spector’s interest

“You do what they say, or they shoot you!” Ross exclaims. 

“Wrong. You take the gun,” says Spector. “Or you pull out a bigger one. Or you call their bluff. Or, you do any one of 146 other things. If you can’t think for yourself, maybe you aren’t cut out for this.” 

There are a bunch of things worth acknowledging here. First, there’s no way Spector was speaking literally—I didn’t watch Suits after the second season, but there’s no way he’s actually stared down the barrel of a gun. Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the face. Second, Suits was set in New York City but filmed in Toronto, I constantly walked past the film sets and shoots while I worked at Xtreme Labs.

In Refuse to Choose!, Barbara Sher describes a situation a woman who attended her workshop, named Helen, was facing. Helen loved living in Africa, but needed to move back home because her parents were getting older and she wanted to take care of them. In other words, it was either Africa, or her parents. 

Sher makes some suggestions: Helen could visit Africa for a few weeks per year (Helen then realized her brother and his family wanted to visit their parents more, and she could coordinate to make sure they were in town when she left), and finding a job that enabled her to do that (e.g., teaching). Helen realized she had options. Sher writes:

When we have what appears to be an unresolvable conflict like Helen’s, we’ve fallen into a trap that I call the Either/Or Fallacy. The moment Either/Or hijacks our thinking, all of our natural resourcefulness disappears. If ever there was a dream killer, Either/Or thinking is it.

The trap

What Spector describes with the hypothetical gun situation, is exactly what Sher describes with “Either/Or thinking.” You’re facing a situation where you can either do this, or that, and there’s no other alternative.

I have my own hunches as to why this takes place. For example, I’ve noticed I’m prone to think in dualities and extremes. Moreover, there are just moments when my brain is engaged in or processing something and I’m not very mindful or accepting of the current situation. Or, I’m just experiencing stubbornness and a refusal to accept the possibilities; I’m experiencing what Ramit Sethi calls an extreme reach barrier. Time scarcity is one manifestation of this.

It can also be incredibly tiring to come up with, and to sort through, alternative possibilities. In a world with so many options, sometimes an unimportant decision just isn’t worth making that thoughtfully.

People working in marketing (whatever their job title might be, including entrepreneurs and founders) understand this all too well. They package all sorts of advantages and benefits into their products; what used to be just an information product now also bundles in a sense of community, proximity to important people, and a promise of guaranteed results. They also exploit people’s senses of confusion, impatience, and need for certainty. The decision triggers each viewer’s Either/Or thinking: 

Either you buy my course, or you will fail.

The note-taking industrial complex is one version of this. I write:

Modern capitalism has a tendency to take something very ordinary and make it extraordinary, and re-package it in luxury, and mark it up by 4,000%. If you’re thinking of doing a course like this, you could just as easily get by with a $20 book (probably this one). That’s what I did, at least. I’m 100% sure there’s stuff I’m missing from my process, different from the course, and that’s the point. It’s my process. It works for me. Nobody can show you yours.

Of course, there are so many questions I have about courses in general. For starters, why is it that usually the person who makes the most money (or the only person who makes money!) after taking a course is the one who created it? Also, why have I not heard of anyone who exceeded the teacher of most of these courses—why is it the teacher who is always the most famous? And why are so many of these courses so expensive?

The truth

In The Courage to Be Disliked, Ichiro Kishimi and Fumitake Koga describe the inferiority complex: 

The inferiority complex, on the other hand, refers to a condition of having begun to use one’s feeling of inferiority as a kind of excuse. So one thinks to oneself, I’m not well educated, so I can’t succeed, or I’m not good-looking, so I can’t get married. When someone is insisting on the logic of “A is the situation, so B cannot be done” in such a way in everyday life, that is not something that fits in the feeling of inferiority category. It is an inferiority complex.

Kishimi and Koga cite Alfred Adler and teleology; the inferiority complex exists inside a person because they need it to achieve a goal. It works for them.

So “Either/Or thinking” exists for a reason—my hunches were all suspicions as to why, at least for me!—and people selling their courses know this all too well. They want to be the option against the status quo, and to exacerbate your experience of your problem. 

The trap is, “Either I buy this course, or I’ll be stuck in the status quo for the rest of my life (or at least the foreseeable future).”

The truth is, “I can make progress on this problem, if I make even just a bit of time and energy to explore it every day until I solve it. This expensive course could make things faster, but it won’t be a panacea, entirely risk-free, or live up to the guaranteed certainty that it promises.”

The trap is alluring, but it’s a trap.

Choose the truth.

Part 1, part 3, and part 4.

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