False Dilemmas in Real Life

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The false dilemma is a concept you’ll know about even if your only connection to philosophy is an Intro to Philosophy class you took as a freshman in high school: it’s a term to describe a situation in which you are falsely told that you only have two options and that you must pick between one of them.

In real life there are 100s of concepts that most people think are mutually exclusive, but that actually are not. These are self-limiting beliefs that you first tell yourself and then tell others — and after a while they just become the mainstream beliefs about things. False dilemmas like the ones you’ll read about below are harmful because they limit the outcomes of anyone who believes in them.

If you feel any natural disagreement as you read any of the points on this list, that could be an opportunity to rid yourself of a self-limiting belief (or it could mean that we are wrong).

Here is a list of false dilemmas that many people believe:

Good For You v. Good For Your Employer
While these ideas are sometimes opposed, they frequently are not. If you have equity in a company, for example, the company succeeding is both good for you and your employer. Working hard is also generally good for you (one way is it improves your future work prospects) and good for the company. There are many more great examples here.

Quality v. Speed
There are so many cases where quality and speed are not mutually exclusive (building Apollo 11, building the atomic bomb, novelists who write award-winning books in mere months, etc.)

Fairness v. Luck
In some ways, luck is the most fair thing there is. A world in which random chance (luck) influences outcomes probably seems more fair to you than a world in which specific human beings decide what the outcomes should be (what many traditional ideas of fairness lead to).

College Degree v. Uneducated
Completing a 4-year college program does not say very much about how educated you are. It may say something about your persistence or possibly your competence in the field you studied, but it is a myth that having a college degree means you are a well-educated person.

Fun v. Hard
Hiking 100 miles in a couple of days and running a marathon are both hard, but they can also be very fun. (So many things in life are like this. Something being personally fulfilling or rewarding can very often have a correlation with how hard it was to do.)

Skinny v. Unhealthy
You can be an incredibly unhealthy person who is also not overweight. As a (simple and narrow) example, there are clinically obese people who could easily outperform skinny people in a marathon.

Pessimism v. Optimism
From a young age, we’re taught to label ourselves as either ‘pessimistic’ or ‘optimistic’ people (hence the glass half-full v. half-empty exercise). The truth is that you do not have to be either of these things in absolute. For example: you could be optimistic about the future, but pessimistic about humanity’s current attempts to improve the world.

Pacifism v. Violence
There are many cases throughout history where certain amounts of violence have most likely led to more peace and less suffering. A desire for peace and a support for violence are not always opposite ideas. 

Fear v. Courage
There’s a quote popularly attributed to Muhammad Ali: “You can’t be brave without fear”. And it’s true. Courage is, in part, defined by having the willpower to do something even though you know you fear it.

Caution v. Confidence
Whether or not you are cautious has almost nothing to do with whether or not you are confident. There are confident people who are not very cautious (Elon Musk, Donald Trump) and there are confident people who are extremely cautious (Warren Buffett, Abraham Lincoln).

Introversion v. Socializing
Most people misunderstand what introversion is. Lots of introverts are great at socializing.

Work v. Life
Work is part of your life, not an enemy you must suffer in order to have a life — this is a useful reframing for some people. Related, working hard is not diametrically opposed to having a good work-life balance (both because working hard does not always mean working long hours, and also because working hard can sometimes help you enjoy a higher quality of life).

Good For Business v. Good For The World
Politicians love giving you a binary choice between being pro-business or being pro-climate, pro-humans, et cetera. While it’s true that sometimes maximizing profit means exploiting people and/or the planet, it’s also true that many of the greatest leaps in human progress and well-being were driven at least in part by financial incentive. Businesses can be good for the world, and in fact have created a lot of things we would include in our definition of ‘the world’.

Having Kids v. Enjoying Life
When you talk to people about having children, you’ll often hear something along the lines of, I just want to enjoy life a little bit first. In reality, it’s quite rare to meet parents who would tell you that kids ruined their enjoyment of life — usually you hear the exact opposite.

Being In A Relationship v. Being Independent
While being in a relationship can reduce your ability to be independent, that’s basically your choice. You can still be a highly independent person and be in a loving, committed relationship.

Atheism v. Religiosity
Atheism excludes you from a significant number of religions, but not all of them. It also does not exclude you from exhibiting religious behaviors.

Risky v. Smart
Much of life revolves around taking bets, and the smartest route is not always the most risk-averse one. It is less about never taking risks and more about picking the right risks to take.

Kind v. Confrontational
There’s a pervasive myth that ‘nice’ people are meek. But people who are actually kind will confront others when it’s the kind thing to do. For example: confronting a close friend who’s developed an alcohol addiction is the kind course of action; letting them spiral further into addiction would be cruel. The same is true to less extreme degrees at work — being honest with someone about lazy or bad output is often genuinely helpful to them.

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