Paper or plastic?

I’m paying for a handful of groceries when the cashier asks, “Paper or plastic?” I open my mouth to answer when it occurs to me that the answer isn’t “paper” or “plastic,” it’s “neither.” I can carry what I have in my hands.

This gets me to thinking about how often we set up our choices this way, as if there were only two options, when there might be three or fifteen. Follow your dreams or follow the money? Go to college or get a job? Yet there is nothing intrinsically dichotomous about such choices. You can go to college and get a job. I know I did.

By the same token, sometimes we think there’s only one choice, or really no choice at all: “This is the only job I’ve been offered in six months of looking, so I have to take it.” The truth is, you don’t have to take it at all. You have other options: going broke, or living in your car, or starting up a meth lab in your basement. I agree that these last few options aren’t good ones, but they exist. My point is, we have to understand what our options really are in order to make informed choices, in order to choose the best answer for our particular circumstances. Breaking out of the habit of mind that recognizes only a few possibilities allows us to see the wide variety of solutions available to deal with any problem.

For example, if going broke is on the horizon, maybe you can sell your second car, borrow money from your aunt, start an online business, volunteer to be a medical study subject, or move in with your old college roommate. When we get trapped in “either-or” thinking, we stop being able to see the more creative or pleasing choices that exist.

An exercise I often recommend when facing the tendency to create “either-or” options is to make a list of 100 — that’s right, one hundred — choices, no matter how silly, unlikely or uninteresting they are. By moving past the first superficial few answers, you can often discover more appealing alternatives.