Is Black-and-White Thinking Keeping You Stuck?

Asperger’s & NLD Career Letter, March, 2017

Lately, I have worked with several frustrated clients who are having trouble reaching their goals.

Evan, a 26 year old Aspergian, is eager to find a job so that he can live independently. His dream job is to open a pet shop that will feature exotic spiders. He envisions himself educating customers about the various species, their characteristics, and how to care for them as pets. However, when he tries to put a plan into place, he quickly becomes overwhelmed and discouraged. Unsure of what other jobs would be appealing, Evan gives up.

Tracy is a 33 year old NLDer who has tried several jobs that didn’t work out. These include day care center assistant, receptionist, and administrative assistant. Tracy explained that she has great difficulty multi-tasking, and learning new, multi-step processes. Her goal is to find something more challenging than her current data entry job.

Recently, a friend suggested that she try event planning. The friend based this advice on the fact that Tracy enjoys attending parties, and is creative. After visiting the Web site of a local event planning company, Tracy became convinced that this was the right career. “My mind is locked on event planning,” she said.

Both Evan and Tracy fell into the trap of black-and-white thinking. That is, they saw their situations in single, absolute terms. This prevented them from considering other options that could lead to better outcomes. It is not uncommon for people with Asperger’s Syndrome and NLD to engage in this rigid thinking style.

Evan didn’t recognize that opening a pet shop was a long-term goal. “Part of your frustration is that you do not have the experience necessary for such an undertaking,” I said. “First, you need to set short-term goals that will enable you to acquire knowledge and skills you need.”

After some brainstorming, we agreed that working at an existing pet shop was a logical first step. Evan agreed that even if there were no spiders for sale, he would learn about the business, and whether he was suited to running a retail store.

Tracy made a decision to pursue a career based on advice from a friend. However, she had no idea of how to plan and manage a wedding, anniversary, corporate meeting or other occasion. “The fact that you enjoy attending parties doesn’t necessarily mean that you will enjoy managing them,” I said. “How can you learn more about what this job involves, and whether it would be a good match?”

In addition to researching event planning careers online, Tracy met with the owner of a local event planning company. Tracy learned that event management involves a high degree of multitasking, as well as the creation of time lines and budgets. She concluded that it was not a good fit.

However, during the meeting Tracy discussed her volunteer work on the fundraising committee at her church. Her primary task was to contact local businesses to solicit donations. She was very successful. The event company owner asked whether Tracy would consider a job selling the company’s services to prospective customers. The owner said that Tracy could attend several sales calls with one of the company’s representatives.

Tracy’s willingness to be flexible and to gather more information led to a possible new career that would utilize her strengths.

People who engage in black-and-white thinking evaluate situations in all-or-nothing terms: good or bad, right or wrong. A better strategy is grayscale thinking: how to do X and Y and develop “if/then” scenarios. Most situations require a flexible mindset. Grayscale thinking enables a person to see options and exceptions to the rules. A black-and-white thinker might spend an entire afternoon focused on a single task, and neglect to respond to calls or emails. A grayscale thinker would ask, “How can I make progress on this task and respond to calls and emails in a timely manner?”

The next time that you find yourself thinking in rigid, all-or-nothing terms, challenge yourself to come up with at least three options. Like Evan and Tracy, you will probably find a better solution.

Copyright 2017, Barbara Bissonnette, Forward Motion Coaching