From The Invisibility of Success:
Finding a Third Handle in a Two-Sided World
The Phrygian sage Epictetus said: “Everything has two handles,
one by which it can be carried and a second by which it cannot.”
The sage who stands before you here today says: “There’s a third
handle on the other side, but it can only be reached by people
who realize they’ve got a third hand to reach with.”
I think the reason people invite me to speak at events like this is
that they vaguely sense, from reading my books, that I have a third
hand I use to grab at things that most people only use two hands on.
They want to see what a three-handed man will make of whatever
theme they’re exploring—whether it’s social investment, health
care reform, or the future of business in the 21st century.
Ours is an obsessively two-valued culture. For example, when it
comes to games and sports, we have many that are two-sided (chess,
checkers, tennis, boxing, football, baseball, soccer, basketball), some
that are many-sided (poker, baccarat, track events, skiing events),
but very few that are exactly three-sided.
Our justice system is intrinsically two-valued. There must be
prosecution and defense, plaintiff and respondent—one winner and
one loser, always. Everyone hates a hung jury, though it’s generally
perceived as a defeat for the prosecution and a win for the defense.
Everyone takes it for granted that there are exactly two sides to
every argument. When it comes to abortion, for example, there’s
the pro-choice side and the pro-life side, and people who haven’t
chosen one of these two sides don’t represent a third side, they just
don’t represent any side at all. The same is true of issues like animal
rights, capital punishment, and drug legalization.
The media play an important role in shaping reality into two-sided
events. Very often two-sidedness isn’t clearly evident in developing
situations. The fundamental news-gathering process helps to clarify
—or manufacture—that desired two-sidedness. If one expert says
that X is wonderful, the reporter is expected to find another expert
who will say that X is terrible—or that Y is much more wonderful
than X. This is, to a large extent, what makes the story NEWS.
When it comes to “the environment,” it hasn’t been so easy to
polarize the community. Where do you send a reporter to get a
quote AGAINST clean water? Or AGAINST clean air? Obviously
everybody wants clean water and clean air. The issue had to be
recast into one that doesn’t put everyone on the same side—and so
it was. If environmentalists are FOR the environment (as they very
willingly say), then what are they AGAINST? The answer to that
wasn’t hard to find. If they’re for the ENVIRONMENT, then they
must be against PEOPLE. Kind of mindboggling, but that’s the way
it’s shaken out. You can’t be for people AND for the environment
— you’ve got to “choose sides.” This is an interesting example of
taking a thing that originally presented only one handle and rotating
it so as to expose two—thereby putting the third handle completely
out of sight.
from The Invisibility of Success