In a piece called Late Bloomers, Malcolm Gladwell describes writer Ben Fountain, who wandered for decades doing research before he became an overnight sensation.
By contrast, some writers (Melville, T. S. Eliot) instinctively knew their minds and needed no research beyond inspiration. The same is true of painters: think of Cezanne (the wanderer) vs. Picasso (the intuitive).
Reading Gladwell, I suddenly recalled Sergio Leone’s spaghetti western Clint Eastwood vehicle, The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. In the film, Tuco (the Ugly – Eli Wallach) and the the Man with No Name (the Good – Eastwood) exchange a meme – “There are two kinds of people in this world, my friend –” followed by parings like, “Those who have guns and those who do not.”
When Sergio Leone and Malcolm Gladwell agree, I submit, you can be confident you’re on to something. Which is, itself, an example of the thing – we humans have a passion for dichotomies.
Whether or not there really are two kinds of anything in this world – we insist on dividing them up that way. It’s a primary sense-making rule for us.
- Men and women, black and white; up and down, day and night.
- Debits and credits; assets and debts; good and evil; owns and lets.
- Angels and devils; sound and sight; pens and swords; heavy and light.
- Classic and modern, north and south, east and west, your ears not your mouth.
- Innies and outies, type one and type two; comedy and tragedy, feeling up and feeling blue.
- Eastern and Western, right handed and left, smooth and anarchic, clumsy and deft.
- Cloudy and sunny, shiny and rusted, aggressive and passive, trusted and distrusted.
And on it goes.
Reality isn’t binary; our view of it is.
The Primacy of Two
It’s not that we don’t love threes: witness 3-legged stools, the three musketeers, three strikes you’re out, thesis-antithesis-synthesis, the Holy Trinity, and the Three Stooges.
But after that things fall down. Consultants are in love with 2×2 matrices (see my “Rule of the Axes” in – wait for it – You Too Can Be a Strategy Consultant – Three Secret Tools). But notice, the power of matrices rests in the combination of two binary lists.
When you get to five, forget it; that’s when you start needing mnemonic devices to remember (the SMART model, Every Good Boy Deserves Fun, SNAFU). Heck you might as well be doing Top Ten lists.
No, the upper limit of natural human organizational ability is three; and if we had our druthers, we’d really prefer to be dealing with twos.
The Good and the Bad
It helps greatly to dichotomize the world so efficiently. Think how easy our lives are made when we can label things hot or cold, stop or go, left or right.
Of course, some things in life don’t benefit from such a lack of nuance. Interpersonal relations, politics and trust come to mind. The trick is remembering when to dichotomize and when not to.
But wait – that’s another dichotomy, please forgive me. After all, to err is human; to forgive, divine. (Damn, did it again).
Roses are red, violets are blue;
Some jokes rhyme–some don’t.
But at least that’s another two!