All or Nothing


“If you won’t play my way, I’ll take the ball and go home!”

 All-or-Nothing Thinking is strangely common and very dangerous to good communication.

Those with All-or-Nothing Thinking look at things in absolutes; Black-and-white categories with no shades between.

This is not the same as being appropriately decisive. This is a refusal to consider more than two options or two answers (of which one is usually deemed very wrong).

“Everyone can see this is clearly the answer.”

Perfectionists struggle with this distortion, as anything short of perfect is complete failure. After all, if you think this way and do not reach perfection, the only other possible outcome is failure. Unfortunately, perfect is rare and often impossible. And thus they have set themselves up for continual failure (at least in their mind).

The defeatists of the world struggle with this as well, assuming that without a perfect answer, all they can do is fail. “Nothing will work, why bother trying, all you will do is fail.” I have no idea how they expect their lives to improve but I can see how the drag everyone else down to their level.

There are times that a decisive answer or clear-cut options are important and useful. It becomes unhealthy when someone needs all decisions to work this way.

People who think in terms of all-or-nothing will also attempt to force this line of thinking on others.  For instance, I recall an old story of an attorney questioning a witness on the stand, “Yes or no only. Are you still cheating on your spouse?”  This type of question has no right answer if the witness has never cheated.  The trap is not only in the question but the requirement for only one of two possible answers.

A world of only yes-or-no, black-or-white, success-or-failure is not orderly. It is unrealistic and fraught with a growing sense of failures that cannot be overcome.

If you notice that you are feeling this type of thinking, step back and consider why? When stressed out, stop. Force yourself to look at your situation from the perspective of others. Is this normal and reasonable? Would you accept this behavior from employees or a partner? Will the decision matter in ten years and still be worthy of this level of attention?

All-or-nothing thinking is a trap people create for themselves. Learn to realize and recognize it and you are well on your way to avoiding it.


About the Author

Glenn S. Phillips works with leaders who want to leverage technology and understand risks within. An author and blogger, Glenn is often quoted in national media, plays a really ugly tuba (it even has a bullet hole) and is a fan of dark chocolate and great puns.