The folly of all or nothing thinking

A better way to view “success”

Fred Mael

The local sports team that you follow is very talented. Many analysts predict that the team will compete for and even win the league championship. Instead, the team loses at some point during the playoffs. As a fan, should you consider the season a failure? In fact, a sportswriter in Boston posed this question to his readers in early December: would anything less than a championship or a trip to the Super Bowl for the football Patriots be enough to save the season from being a “failure” for the fans? The readers’ consensus was that it would indeed be a failure. Your answer to this question is significant, not for itself, but for how you live your work and non-work life.

The Average Upbeat Days Index

I would propose that this all-or-nothing view makes no one happy except for the talking heads of sports radio. Rather, a fan should adopt a much different perspective. If you invest yourself in a team and identify with it, much of the pleasure you have throughout the season is in your head. The positive feelings you have after a win, the eager anticipation with which you contemplate the odds that your team will win the next game, and the sense in between games that your team will be in the playoffs, all make you feel good or at least excited. If your team eventually loses a playoff game (as all but one team will) you will be disappointed – at that time. The loss, no matter how badly you take it, no matter how gloomily your favorite columnist couches it, cannot retroactively take away the pleasure you had at the time.

Assume that you are a Patriots (or Ravens) fan. If you add up all the days throughout the season that you were happy about that part of your life, the average happiness level should be significantly higher than that of someone who lives in Detroit, for example. Using this Average Upbeat Days Index should convince you that you, as a fan, had a “good” (as in pleasurable) season. The only thing that denies you the ability of your reflecting on having had a good season as a fan is your own all-or-nothing logic. That you buy into this viewpoint could be blamed on you being the gullible victim of sports talking heads, or a symptom of your own underlying values.

The Dying With Most Toys SyndromeThe question of whether you had a good season as a fan is trivial. The underlying point is much more important. Your actual life is not your resume. You may choose to walk around believing that you are only as good as what you are doing right now, and that the partial and complete successes of the past are just an illusory dream. What is surprising is how willing people are to let go of the good aspects of the past.

A certain sickness, described best by the bumper sticker “whoever dies with the most toys, wins”, forces many into the mindset that the experience of life should be reduced to a race, and its value measured only by the results at the finish line. The stupidity of that bumper sticker should be obvious. Are the “most toys” possessions, the kind you can’t take with you beyond the grave? If the “most toys” referred to your health, would you want to die prematurely so that you could reach the finish line in good health? Wouldn’t you rather live a long life, with the extremely high probability that you won’t feel as well towards the end as you did in your twenties? Think about it for a moment – if your health fails you toward the end of life, does that mean that all the care you took of yourself was for naught? Yet because we have trained ourselves to be achievement oriented and competitive, which may bring out the best in us in some realms, we feel we have to apply this type of harsh evaluation to ourselves and to others. Usually it’s a distortion – one of the cognitive distortions that psychologists see as leading to depression and other ills.


As mentioned, the original sports fan question is admittedly trivial – does it really matter if you had a good season as a fan? However, this perspective can have many applications in your professional and personal life. For example:

You read a book that has you engrossed. Then you come to the end and hate the ending. Was it a waste of time to read the book or did you have pleasure until the end?

You are involved with a church, synagogue, or community institution for a number of successful years. You spent many watershed life events in that institution and volunteered your time and money. Eventually, the crowd changes, or dissension and lethargy set in. Your church or other institution either moves away, in which case its identity changes, or it closes its doors. Should you feel that all the effort you put into it was for nothing?

You hire an employee and for a number of years have a productive work relationship that benefits your firm. The something changes and amid recriminations or hurt feelings, the employee leaves or is terminated. You may not be on speaking terms any more, but do you really think you would have been better off to have never employed this person? Moreover, is it possible that your holding on to this perspective hampers your ability to deal constructively with the departure of valued employees?

The company you run or founded is successful for a number of years, providing you and others with good income. Then a change in the economy, consumer preferences, or technology sends you into a tailspin, until you are now forced to close or sell the business. You are not bankrupt (far from it) but your dream business no longer exists. Was this a case of “all for nothing?”

You may feel that the answer to each of these questions is yes, and that nothing less than complete or continuous good outcomes can be considered “success”. You may have been indoctrinated to believe that the only alternative to that position is to be satisfied with being “second-best”, and you, after all, are a winner. Perhaps George Steinbrenner is someone you admire most. That’s your choice, if you think that that’s what you need to believe in order to keep yourself motivated and hungry. But if it means berating yourself and others needlessly, putting a negative revisionist spin on all you’ve accomplished, and having a pessimistic, ungrateful view of life – remember that you have choices and you don’t have to buy into all or nothing thinking.

Fred Mael ( is an organizational psychologist who does consulting in areas such as talent retention, organizational culture, and performance management, as well as executive and work/life coaching. This article appeared in the March 2004 issue of Baltimore SmartCEO magazine.