Why You Should Keep an Open Mind About Your Career

Here's how black-and-white thinking limits your career possibilities.

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Curt Rosengren
Always. Never. Have to. Can’t. They seem harmless enough, but if you’re not careful these words and others like them can keep you stuck in your career. They are all symptoms of the artificially limited worldview created by black-and-white thinking.

Black-and-white thinking offers only two options. Either something is possible or it isn’t. Either you get it 100 percent right, or you have failed. But in reality, this is a multi-chromatic world. While some things really are either/or, most things have numerous shades of the rainbow between black and white.

For example, consider the person who looks at a career change and, based on their current situation, decides they can’t do it. So they heave a sigh and give up. That perspective— career change isn’t possible—only reflects the current snapshot of their life. But if they add the variable time they might find that what isn’t possible immediately is possible over the course of, say, three years.

“It’s either possible or it’s not” is black-and-white thinking. “It’s not possible right now, but it could be at some point, and here’s how” is multi-chromatic thinking.

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Here are some ways that black-and-white thinking limits your career:

Eliminates options

By taking an either/or approach, you completely ignore the wide array of options and possibilities that would help you reach your goals and objectives.

Creates artificial obstacles

When you only have one option, and that option is blocked, the way forward seems impassable. If that singular option is an artificial creation—that is, if there are actually more options that you just aren’t paying attention to—then you have needlessly created an insurmountable obstacle.

Stops exploration

If, as so often happens, your black-and-white thinking leads you to mistakenly believe that the possibilities are limited, you’re much less likely to explore options. You might think, “There is only one path to a positive outcome and I can see that it’s blocked.” In that case, how motivated are you going to be to get creative and explore other possibilities? Probably not very, since you’re operating with an underlying belief that there’s only one option to begin with.

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Prevents action

Just like it stops exploration of possibilities, black-and-white thinking can prevent you from taking action. Again, if there’s only one option, and that option isn’t possible, what’s the point? And not taking any action is a great way to guarantee that you get no traction.

Makes you feel trapped

If you can’t see options and your choices are limited, you’re more likely to feel trapped. When you feel trapped, it affects both your outlook and your quality of life.

Makes the world a more threatening place

Black-and-white thinking just plain makes the world a more threatening place. The stakes are higher, because you get either the positive version or the negative version. There’s no room for anything in between, or any positive options that don’t look like your rigidly held version.

[See Why Loving Your Work Matters.]

Creates and reinforces a world view of limitation

Finally, black-and-white thinking has a self-perpetuating effect by cultivating a limited view of the world. The more you operate based on that limited view, the more ingrained it becomes. And the more ingrained it becomes, the more real those artificial limitations appear.

Black-and-white thinking can show up in many different ways. It can be about possibilities. It can manifest as beliefs about yourself, or others (for example, wanting to ask for helping and thinking, “They would never be willing to help”). It can even show up in your beliefs about the way the world works (for example, “With this economy, finding work you love is impossible”).

When you find yourself thinking in terms of binary extremes—all or nothing, always or never, can or can’t, etc.—stop for a moment and ask yourself, is that really true? What might be some other options? Is it conceivable that real life examples might counter that black-and-white view? The more you keep an open mind, the more doors will open in your career.

After years as a professional malcontent, Curt Rosengren discovered the power of passion. As speaker, author, and coach, Rosengren helps people create careers that energize and inspire them. His book, 101 Ways to Get Wild About Work, and his E-book, The Occupational Adventure Guide, offer people tools for turning dreams into reality. Rosengren's blog, The M.A.P. Maker, explores how to craft a life of meaning, abundance, and passion.