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Author: Chitra Iyer
Published on:
September 30, 2022

Either/Or Decisions or Both/And Possibilities?

We teach our kids that tough calls and hard trade-offs are part of life. When we say YES to one thing, we have to say NO to something else. But here’s the problem with that EITHER/OR thinking: when we constantly only choose between 2 hard paths, we miss many possibilities in the middle. In the cracks between THIS or THAT, lie the MAYBE’s - the possibilities that truly make innovative thinking possible. How can we help our kids learn amidst uncertainty by getting to the ‘maybe’s’?
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To help our kids become more possibility-led decision makers and innovative problem solvers by embracing the Both/And approach, we take advice from two professors of management who have researched decision-making in the business world for over decades.

A Personal Dilemma 

Recently, I was faced with a very important decision. Of how best to use my time as a self-employed professional to earn a living and find joy in what I was doing. On one hand, I have a thriving B2B content writing business. On the other, I have Polymath Parenting, which is my passion. And third, a promising new business idea in partnership with my husband which had been selected to a business incubation program and could grow into something huge. 

Operating in the ‘Either This or That’ framework, my immediate response was - I am going to have to choose between the three. What did I finally decide? I’ll tell you at the end of this blog! But first the process!

Can  Some Creative Tension Elevate Learning Outcomes? 

In a recent HBR IdeaCast podcast, I listened in on Wendy Smith, a management professor at the University of Delaware, and Marianne Lewis, dean of the University of Cincinnati Lindner College of Business, who have been researching decision-making in the business world for decades. 

Borrowing ideas from their new book, Both/And Thinking: Embracing Creative Tensions to Solve Your Toughest Problems , I realized that we parents need to help our kids move beyond tradeoffs and learn the art of BOTH/AND thinking (also called ‘paradoxical’ thinking) that can help them be stronger learners, innovators, and decision-makers.

They say that as humans, decision-making naturally leads to some anxiety - and as a defense, we tend to narrow down choices and reduce ambiguity to help make an easier decision. We are wired to think of decision-making in ‘either/or’ terms because we don't like uncertainty.

But in the long run, uncertainty, change, plurality, and scarcity are CERTAIN. 

Making the best choices in ambiguous situations is a real invaluable 21st-century skill. 

So how can we help our kids learn to be better decision makers by embracing uncertainty and working with possibilities that lie within the BOTH/AND spectrum? 

Lessons from the business world

In the business world, executives have to make NOW decisions and LONG-TERM decisions. Decisions about execution and decisions about innovation. It's not either/or - leaders have to make BOTH types of decisions and they need to use different approaches to make both kinds of decisions.

For example, in a crisis or emergency, an either/or maybe the default response. For example, either you fire an employee or risk keeping a toxic team member on. In many cases, either/or decisions making is useful.

And in other instances, there is much more room to play with the possibilities. For instance, when you are brainstorming for new product ideas, you don’t have to pick immediately between two possibilities. You instead can question all the assumptions around both options, line up a list of multiple possibilities, and then decide what combination works best for you using the best of both possibilities. 

Here’s a hypothetical future scenario. A business meeting where a decision on a vendor needs to be taken. On one side, the sustainability guys are arguing for a certain vendor or material. On the other side, the finance guys propose a different solution. How would your kid, as a future leader, be able to mediate these two sides, listen to both arguments, and find a solution that makes the most of the two arguments to come up with a third more creative solution? 

By exploring the possibilities - the MAYBE’s - that lie between the two ‘choices’ of course.   

Our children don’t need to choose between Either/Or and the Both/And approach.

Instead, they need to have the knack to decide when a situation calls for an either/or decision or a both/and analysis. And if they go with a Both/and, they need the skills to combine the best ideas from all possibilities to come up with a unique solution. That’s what the world will ultimately call an ‘innovative’ solution. 

Both/And Thinking in the Learning Context

At school, in politics, and in relationships, we are constantly asked to choose sides - either this or that. Unfortunately, this either/or thinking leads so many kids every year to needlessly kill themselves out of sheer despair. When they think in terms of ‘either I pass and succeed or I fail and kill myself’ or ‘either I’m good or I’m bad’, ‘either my parents love me or they hate me’ or ‘I can either get this answer right or wrong’, they fail to see all the many possibilities in the middle. 

In the learning context, children too easily accept obvious answers that are spoonfed to them. That makes them really good test-takers. But if you want them to be innovators and problem-solvers, then they need to be able to find and connect multiple perspectives rather than pick one side over the other. 

Whether they are framing an essay, trying to crack a math or science problem, or building a lego set, the Both/And approach always helps come up with new possibilities. Using it will help our kids understand that there are many alternative options and possibilities to choose from when we are learning new things. Take the time to explore all the possibilities, in language, science, and math. 

Getting stuck down one side puts us at risk of entirely missing out on another side or perspective, where the real breakthroughs, inventions, and discoveries may lie. 

Characteristics of BOTH/AND thinking:

  • Comfortable with ambiguity and UNCERTAINTY - there is no one right answer. Doesn’t easily roll over and accept one right answer but asks questions to explore more possible answers.
  • Understand that learning can be a STRUGGLE - doesn't have to be easy, cut and dry, binary.
  • Appreciate that FRICTION can open all sorts of possibilities to dig into
  • Appreciate that CHANGE comes from possibilities and not fixed notions
  • Can use their GUT FEEL and find comfort in the discomfort. 
  • Ask WHAT IF questions- especially What if the OPPOSITE solution was true?

The problem is NOT the problem- the problem is How you THINK about the problem.

What can you do to encourage your child to think out of possibilities?

  1. Change the questions: when they are stuck with a question, as them to change or reframe the question. In my case, when I could not come up with an answer to the question “Which of the 3 occupations should I pursue?”, I changed the question. I reframed it to ask: “How can I best use my talents to pursue multiple things in a way that I enjoy my work?” 

  1. Remove the boundaries: ask what if the opposite were true. Here, I challenged myself to challenge the notion that “one cannot do multiple things successfully”. What if the opposite were true? What if I could indeed do multiple different things successfully, what would that life look like, and what would be the best strategies to make that happen? 

  1. Find synergies: when I think about what I am truly good at,or where my gifts lie, it is expressing complex ideas through writing. How can I use that as the common factor between all three possibilities: my freelance career, my business idea, and my passion - to come up with a BOTH/AND solution? 

So what did I finally choose?

Once I had clarity that my strongest skill was writing, my only debate was how can I best use this skill to create a career and life that I enjoy. The choice was not between 3 career choices, but about finding the best way to use my skills across multiple possibilities. 

With this mindset, I realize I can create content for my clients, I can create content for Polymath Parenting, and I can create content for our new business idea. I can go deep into writing while going wide across my areas of applying that skill. And others on the team could handle other aspects of the business that were not either my skill or my joy.

So the next time your kid says, “I have to pass, or else!” challenge them to instead ask “What is the alternative?” If it is to fail, challenge them to ask “What if failing would be the best thing for me right now?” “Why?”

If learning is the goal (not passing or failing) then they will realize that both passing and failing are possibilities, and both have their advantages and disadvantages. And by keeping the focus on learning, they don't have to bother about passing or failing but simply learning (which includes struggles and failures as much as it includes breakthroughs and eureka moments!).

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