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Breaking the Binary

Updated: Nov 16, 2022

What’s the opposite of failure? It’s not success. We think it’s success, but it is not. The opposite failure is non-failure. (The opposite of success is non-success). This is an important distinction to make because the stigma surrounding failure is rooted in this misunderstanding. We believe that if we do not succeed, we categorically fail. If we fail, then we do not succeed. Both of those statements are false.

As children we are led to believe that the opposite of a dog is a cat. As an adult, we realize how ridiculous this assertion is. For starters, it precludes other pets - hamsters, birds, fish - that might also be considered the opposite of a dog. But actually, to bring other animals into the argument misses the point entirely. In math, we don’t say the opposite of 1 is 2. That’s crazy. The opposite of 1 is negative 1. It is the absence of one. Similarly, the opposite of a dog is the absence of a dog.

This is logic, a branch of mathematics that studies reason. Studying logic encourages us to question what we believe to be true, and may allow us to reinforce or change our beliefs.

One belief that logic helped me change was my misunderstanding of opposites. I have observed, in myself and others, this misunderstanding lead to severely problematic thinking. If I’m not good, then I must be bad. If I’m not masculine, then I must be feminine. If you’re not with me, you must be against me. How much of our political discourse boils down to this black and white thinking? The false dichotomies that we have created dictate how we process information and interact with others.

Boolean Logic teaches that there are four categorical statements that can be made about a given topic. In layman's terms these statements are:

  1. Everything is.

  2. Nothing is.

  3. Some things are.

  4. Some things are not.

Here’s an example of how those statements might apply to dogs.

  1. All dogs are animals.

  2. No dogs are cats.

  3. Some dogs are poodles.

  4. Some animals are not dogs.

All of these statements are true. As opposed to these statements:

  1. All dogs are animals.

  2. No dogs are animals.

  3. Some dogs are animals.

  4. Some dogs are not animals.

The first statement is true. The rest are false. Now let’s consider these statements.

  1. All failure is success.

  2. No failure is success.

  3. Some failure is success.

  4. Some failure is not success.

Which one of these statements is true? It’s more difficult to say. That is because failure and success are conditional. All of these statements might be true at times, but none of these statements are true all of the time. Some success necessitates failure. They are interrelated. Like “opposite” ends of a magnet, one cannot exist without the other, however they are not true opposites because they do not oppose each other. They imply one another. They complement each other, yinning the other’s yang.

If we can break our binary this-or-that thinking, then we can see the relativity of failure. We may relax and find comfort in knowing that our failure does not hinder our success, it paves the way for it. So in improv, we create a space where we may be reverent of failure, and even celebratory of it, at every step in the process.

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