The Binary and the Yin Yang

A groundhog said six more weeks of winter. There is one other option but I don’t remember what it is. I am sharing a story of letting go of limiting decisions to just one or the other. I’ve found the gap in between polarized thinking to be much more rewarding. Students of Servant Leadership may find hints of Awareness, conceptualization, foresight, and community building in It is a quick read, with a little food for thought. Comments and sharing are always welcome.

In this post:


Story: The binary and the Yin and Yang

Mark Twain is attributed as saying, “When I was a boy of 14 my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be 21 I was astonished at how much he had learned in seven years.” My Pa used to tell me, “Danny, everything isn’t either black or white.” I remember telling him, “There’s a lot less grey than you’d think.” I still find comfort in seeing things as a simple choice between two distinct options. It is so much easier than seeing things along a continuum between two extremes. The comfort of binary thinking is everything resolves to one way or the other. When in doubt, I can always consult my favorite decision genie: a quarter.

As an undergraduate student I studied business finance. I found great comfort in two measures of financial analysis: net present value (NPV) and internal rate of return (IRR). NPV returns a dollar amount representing the revenue and costs of a project over time. An NPV greater than zero is good, less than zero is bad. IRR returns a percentage figure that can be compared to the cost of capital. An IRR greater than the cost of capital is good, less than the cost of capital is bad. Similarly, Jack Welch, former head of General Electric, was a fan of ranking employees from best to worst and getting rid of the bottom 10% every year. Everything is simple. Everything is black and white. A profit maximizing organization ranks projects and people and ignores or eliminates those outside the relevant range. Both approaches, theoretically, lead to the best possible outcomes for organizations.

Over the course of many years I have gone through a phase of ignorance and (hopefully) a bit of learning. I was exposed to Eastern philosophy as a teenager. The Taoist principle of yin and yang has been especially durable over the years. Put simply, yin and yang point to ends of a continuum: top/bottom, day/night, good/evil, etc. Western thinking often focuses around the ends of the continuum of black or white, good or bad, male or female, As a result, options often resolve to binary choices. one goes to the mountains or the sea shore, Heaven or Hell, etc. In assessing projects to pursue or people to let go of, there is an assumption that all relevant data is being considered before a decision is made. This is sometimes referred to as the assumption of perfect information. Those things outside of the decision criteria are referred to as externalities: a convenient synonym for irrelevant.

I had the privilege of being a part of a recent conversation on the intersection of gender and religious engagement. The conversation was nuanced by the fact that the participants had experience with conservative Christian denominations and are also members of the transgender community. Neither the individuals’ personal beliefs nor their gender presentation conformed to the doctrine of the (three different) faith traditions they were raised in. This disconnect led all to reluctantly walk away from their faith traditions. It seemed there was an assumption that the religious doctrines represented perfect information and the individuals were externalities: a convenient synonym for irrelevant.

While waiting for the ski lift someone who had observed me coming down the hill called out to us, “It took me a minute to put things together. That’s the most amazing thing I’ve ever seen. You guys are awesome.” I appreciated the recognition that skiing while blind is a collaborative experience. Skiing and blindness might be considered to be mutually exclusive. Although skiing while blind is closer to the amazing end of many continuums, it is something I do, a part of who I am. I am grateful for the people who intentionally include blindness as a part of the downhill skiing experience.

As I am writing this I am listening to music in a language I do not know, from a place I do not know. The not knowing makes the music all the more interesting.

There are oranges, bananas, and apples ripening in my kitchen right now. Some days I think we should simplify our choices (or I should find a three-sided quarter). When my Pa was telling me that everything is not black or white, I think he wanted me to know that seeing things as black and white is a choice I was projecting onto the world around me. And, just as I came to realize my Pa was a lot smarter than I once thought, the space between the yin and the yang is much more interesting than just seeing apples and oranges.

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