Academic life

Either/or thinking and the beliefs that hold us down

Academia is full of either/or beliefs.

You can either be a strong researcher or a stellar teacher. You can either have work-life balance or a successful career. You can either take care of your mental health or excel in your job. You can either get a tenure track job and be happy or be stuck in non-TT, non-ac jobs and be miserable. You can either be an administrator or a faculty member. And so on.

Most of us have more than a few of these rattling around in our skulls. Even though we know, intellectually, that they are not strictly facts or rules, they’re conjured when we’re feeling challenged, stressed, anxious, imposter-ish, or just grumpy. In other words, either/or beliefs tend to appear when the emotional brain is temporarily running the show. It’s not quite in reptilian fight-or-flight mode, but it falls into a pattern of black and white thinking that ultimately isn’t all that helpful.

Why is it unhelpful? It’s operating on a logic of scarcity. This plays out in politics all the time: governments proclaim that we can either have freshly paved roads or a better health care system. We can either have jobs or a carbon tax. These either/or myths thrive on fear and stoke the belief that there isn’t enough to go around. They present false choices that push fear-based decisions because they seem to preclude the possibility of other options. I don’t know about you, but I can pretty easily call bullshit on either/or thinking when it comes at me from politicians. But it can be harder to challenge the ingrained belief systems that feed black and white thinking in our own lives.

Breaking down the either/or binary: Strategies

Let me be clear that I’m not an advocate of wishful thinking, unbridled positivity, or fanciful notions of endless abundance as “solutions” to the very real challenges that shape academic careers and personal lives, health and wellness, or the systems and structures that shape choices and opportunities. But scarcity and fear are not the places from which productive change is made. I do believe that changing the question, reframing the problem, and imagining alternatives are helpful and necessary. Here are some ways to start.


I have a mantra: feelings aren’t facts. I even made it into a cross-stitch. I say this to myself when I’m caught up in an emotional reaction, including when faced with a decision. It’s a reminder to slow down until my emotional brain cools off before making any decisions. Time is a gift when facing what seems like an either/or moment. Here’s an example: when I was offered my first position at Mount Allison – a 9-month sessional contract – I knew little more than that Mount A was a small school with a good reputation in the Maritimes. I suddenly had to do my homework and what I found scared me: Mount A is in a tiny town (5000 or so people) half an hour from the nearest city. I had never lived in a small town. I loved Toronto. I assumed that taking the job meant giving up my city life. Either I took the job, or I kept the life I loved. I decided to turn it down.

By the next morning things looked different. “The life I loved” meant being underemployed in adjunct positions, if I was lucky. My partner and daughter could stay in Toronto and we would visit back and forth. There were lots of ways to make it work. It was never either/or.

There are very few decisions in academia that can’t wait until after a night’s rest. Take as much time as you reasonably can: your emotional brain can calm down and your neocortex – the part that can imagine and plan for the future – can show up and do its thing.


Try switching the either/or equation into a both/and relationship. Even if it seems impossible, rewrite the script so that you can at least ASK whether it is, in fact, possible to have both. How can I be an excellent researcher and teacher? How can I have a successful career and the family I want? This is not an “ask the universe for what you want and it will manifest” move. It’s just a simple trick to break out of a scarcity mindset by asking an open-ended question that just might generate some possible answers. No, you probably cannot have EVERYTHING you want, at least not immediately. But it’s much more productive to start from a place of abundance and work back to what might really be possible, than to start from a place of lack and scarcity.

Change the definitions

Part of the problem with either/or is that we get so focused on the supposed choice that we have to make that we forget to question and pull apart the terms of that choice. What I mean is that we might be locked into a particular, external idea of what a “successful career” looks like. What are you picturing? Is it actually something that you want? If not, then re-write the definition of “successful career,” “strong research,” or “work-life balance” into something that is meaningful, possible, and right for you. I know you can’t replace strict tenure guidelines or magically change the outcomes of the vicious job market. But there are lots of ways to define “success” or “balance” when you look at the big picture. Who do you admire? Who actually smiles at work? Who made different choices and seems happier for it? Even within a traditional, hierarchical institution such as academia, people chart their own paths and re-write the scripts of what they’re supposed to do. Re-writing the terms of the either/or equation is one way to get unstuck.

Work backwards from values and priorities

Either/or thinking is essentially about what we can’t have. It’s not a fun place to be stuck. Here’s a different path: step away from the either/or question and consider a different set of questions: What are my core values, the principles and qualities that really define who I am and what matters most to me? And what are my greatest priorities in terms of those values? Spend some time with these – write them down or make a values “wheel” (draw a “pizza” with your values in each “slice”). Think about how they connect to each other. How satisfied with each of those areas are you in your current situation? Which areas would have the greatest overall impact if you could increase your satisfaction? What are some steps you could take to make that happen? Once the conversation in your mind is focused on these bigger picture questions, the either/or dilemma might shrink or become irrelevant.



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