Right around college graduation, a great realization arrived: I needed a job – and soon. Given that I was an English major and actually qualified to do very little, I should have started thinking about this years earlier. But it was too late for that – and so I embarked on my Quest to Find a Meaningful Job.
Rather miraculously, I landed a full-time, paying gig as an editorial assistant at a science journal where I understood almost nothing that was said or written. Not unsurprisingly, this work failed to provide deep fulfillment. And so I spent a rather awkward year actually living a life but pretending it wasn’t really mine. My real life, I assumed, would start when I found a real job.
This pattern continued for many years through many jobs that might have taught me some valuable things if I’d let them. As it was, I felt I couldn’t really commit 100 percent to a position unless it met all my expectations. I viewed every job from a single lens: it was either perfect or it wasn’t.
This is reflective of a problem that affects most of us: Dualistic thinking.
As defined by Richard Rohr, author of the amazing book Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life, dualistic thinking is a “well-practiced pattern of knowing most things by comparison.”
As Rohr puts it: “Don’t take my word for it; just notice your own thoughts and reactions. You will see that you will move almost automatically into a pattern of up or down, in or out, for me or against me, right or wrong, black or white, gay or straight, good or bad.”
Rohr urges us instead to embrace non-dualistic, or “both-and” thinking, in which it is not necessary to create polar opposites and then pick one extreme or the other. Rather, we stand in the tension between those poles and see what both can teach us, uncomfortable though it might be. In other words, we keep an open mind.
Had I understood this when I was 22, I’d have seen the science journal job for what it really was. Not just a way to pay the bills while I figured out something better but also a chance to meet some smart people, get exposure to a different field and practice the habits of being a professional. Sadly, I learned none of those things.
And 18 years later, I’m sometimes prone to the same mistakes. Just yesterday, I had a conference call on my schedule at 4:30 p.m., a time usually reserved for getting things done. In my usual mindset, 4:30 calls are either Really Worth It or Not Worth It At All. I suspected this one of being the latter and tried to dash through it accordingly. There was just one complication: The guy on the other end was really interesting and thinks in a way that I do not.
I took it as perhaps a small sign of maturity that I recognized this turn of events during the call – and so was able to make the most of it. Somewhere between the poles of Wanting to Do Something and Not Wanting to Do It, I kept my balance long enough to learn something new. And that is the kind of habit that can reinvent us.