Do you trap yourself in mental jails?

“Nice guys finish last.”

Alone, this thought has probably condemned many men and women to abandon being nice. Accurate or not, combined with another belief, that the alternative to being nice is to be a jerk, further condemns people to being jerks. Jerks—people with one type of poor relationship skills—even when materially successful, seem likely to face emptiness in intimacy, what many consider the most important parts of their lives. We don’t like jerks around us, so we don’t want others to consider us jerks and shun us. But if the alternative of finishing last seems worse, we feel rational in choosing it.

Whether nice people finish last or not, you can’t much control. After you try your best, competitive outcomes depend on many factors, including your competitors’ efforts and chance, that you have no control over.

How you behave, though, you can control. If you believe only one alternative to niceness exists, and that alternative is to be a jerk, you choose to be a jerk.

The perspective that a choice has one alternative is called a dichotomy, and a false dichotomy when more than two choices exist, which is one belief of many that trap people into what I call mental jails. They can’t think freely because their own beliefs stop them from thinking outside certain bounds. Describing the concept so abstractly may make me sound like, having learned these concepts, I’m above them, but anyone not omniscient faces them, including you and me.

I’m writing this post in response to a New Yorker piece, “The Televisionary: Big business and the myth of the lone inventor.” It describes the challenges of inventing something by going it alone versus within a major corporation, using the invention of the television as an example. Conventional wisdom says that big business steals lone inventors’ ideas and destroys them. This piece presents near the start—surprisingly, even shockingly—that the lone inventor’s “travails make a rather strong case for big corporations, not against them.” It makes for great reading—how could this be the case?

It only makes sense in a mental jail of a false dichotomy.

The rest of the piece backs up the claim. Compared to lone inventor Philo Farnsworth, the big corporation’s (RCA) top researcher

had his share of setbacks as well. He took on Farnsworth in court, and lost. He promised television in two years for a hundred thousand dollars and he came in eight years and fifty million dollars over budget. But he ended his life a prosperous and contented man, lauded and laurelled with awards and honorary degrees. He had the cocoon of RCA to protect him: a desk and a paycheck and a pension and a secretary and a boss with the means to rewrite history in his favor. This is perhaps a more important reason that we have companies—or, for that matter, that we have universities and tenure. Institutions are not just the best environment for success; they are also the safest environment for failure—and, much of the time, failure is what lies in store for innovators and visionaries. Philo Farnsworth should have gone to work for RCA. He would still have been the father of television, and he might have died a happy man.

Sounds enticing! I should abandon my attempts to try so hard in hopes of personal success. Focusing on independence and individuality distracts me from what actually happens, which is that that strategy loses. I might as well stop thinking of myself as a precious flower since I’m not going to attain personal success anyway and enjoy the creature comforts of making a lot of money.

Nice people who believe they have exactly one alternative condemn themselves to a mental jail, and the resulting social shunning. If they act like a jerk to avoid finishing last, they may have been innocent of knowing about third, fourth, and often innumerable alternatives, but they chose to act like a jerk.

How about confidence? That’s neither a “nice guy” trait nor a jerk trait. Or assertive? Or sophisticated and funny? There are plenty of behaviors outside the nice/jerk dichotomy that avoid finishing last that one can cultivate, but not if you believe in the dichotomy.

If the only alternative to going it alone were to sacrifice your ideals and join a corporation, I’d agree with the New Yorker piece that you should join a corporation.

But I teach how to act and think entrepreneurially in ways that build teams that can work in corporations or can create teams outside of corporations—the business equivalent of confidence, assertiveness, sophistication, humor, and other behaviors outside the false dichotomy.

We all have false dichotomies and other beliefs that form mental jails around our thoughts.

I wrote this piece and created my courses to suggest that through awareness we don’t have to suffer from them.

That false dichotomy around introversion and extroversion is why I condemn the book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking in my post, “Quiet garbage: a feel-good book on introversion that promotes complacency and limiting beliefs.” It reinforces a false dichotomy, motivating its readers to confine themselves to mental jails and complacency.

The world abounds with false dichotomies and mental jails. It’s up to each of us to, as Bob Marley sang in Redemption Song,

Emancipate yourself from mental slavery,
None but our self can free our minds.

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