We love to categorise things. This is in our nature; we must theorise and classify things and experiences. From an evolutionary perspective, this makes sense. It provides a defensive mechanism for recognising risk and keeping us safe (one snake looks pretty much like another snake).

There’s a downside to this and it is that we frequently mis-classify things. While some snakes are dangerous it’s better to treat all snakes as belonging to the ‘dangerous’ category because a mistake could be tragic. The cost – that you err on the side of caution and misjudge few benign snakes – is outweighed by the advantages.

This habit of classifying and putting things into groups has important consequences, particularly when we overdo it or get it wrong. For example, while snakes won’t get too upset at being misjudged, people frequently do.

But opposites co-exist

A more subtle but infinitely more costly side-effect of this is that when we create a class we automatically generate its opposite. If we create a notion of ‘success’, along with it, we instantly generate ‘failure’. The same happens with ‘good’ (‘bad’), win (‘lose’), and right (‘wrong’), etc.

So when you categorise something you automatically create its opposite. The two are not mutually exclusive, they must co-exist. When we desire and head for something, without realising it, we run the risk of ending up with something we didn’t want. So when aiming at success, for example, we simultaneously must consider, fear and probably attempt to avoid, failure.

By thinking about it, you increase the risk that it’ll happen. So much so, that some people will forget about success altogether and start obsessing about the likelihood of failure. This is often enough to put them off, and their original aim, success, is soon forgotten.

There are two things to be aware of that are relevant to our own growth and development:

  1. Making automatic judgements is a good safety mechanism, but it should be used selectively. Over-use it and you’ll miss out on opportunity and new experiences. You’ll be safe but boring, which is not what we are designed to be.
  2. When setting targets and goals for yourself (or standards of behaviour), be aware of the risks posed by the opposite you automatically create. The advice? Rather than aiming for ‘success’ simply aim to do your best, or be the best you can in that particular situation.