The World Is Grey: The Folly of Thinking in Black and White

Wehumans like to categorize the world into neatly demarcated buckets because it helps us to make sense of and navigate it.

Simplifying can help us avoid analysis paralysis and make fast decisions — but doing so is not without its costs.

The problem with seeing things in black and white, or red and blue, or whatever opposing color combination you can think of, is that it inhibits our ability to see nuance.

Seeing things in a binary way can inhibit our ability to engage in discourse, innovate and ultimately divides us.

Exceptions to Every Rule

Whatever the so-called rule, there is usually a set of very specific circumstances under which the rule holds true, and an extensive list of circumstances under which it becomes redundant.

If I’m starting a new business, I might want to rapidly test the assumptions that underpin my idea with a low fidelity prototype in order to learn and iterate towards a product or business model that works.

This might work if I’m a B2C business with millions of potential customers, but if I’m targeting a B2B business targeting a tiny market of very particular, but big-spending customers, then this approach of offering up half-baked solutions to poorly defined problems might render bridges burned, with absolutely no road back.

What holds true in one case does not hold true in another.

Or this:

Green smoothies are better for you than beer — this is pretty hard to debate.

But if I’m drinking the green smoothie all on my own, while two friends are sharing a beer and engaging in an enjoyable and deep conversation, then perhaps they are healthier in that moment, given the role that socialising with others plays when it comes to our mental health.

We also find ourselves in a rapidly evolving world — COVID19 and the acceleration of technology over the past twenty years should serve as a reminder of that — so what was true, or ‘more true’ of something yesterday might no longer be true today.

This is something that many businesses are learning the hard way, what with their distribution channel suddenly becoming redundant, or customer appetite for their product suddenly becoming absent.

Nuance is everywhere.

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We Can Never Be Sure We’re Right

As famed physicist Richard Feynman put it, we can only ever falsify hypotheses, and as a result of there being far too many moving parts to any idea, we can only ever be sure we’re wrong, but we can never be absolutely sure that we’re right.

We can only ever be ‘more right’ based on consuming, processing and distilling an entire body of evidence and knowledge about a topic at our disposal — and even then, we can still be wrong.

The World is Mostly Grey

Instead of seeing the world in black and white, we should instead strive see it as a spectrum — black on one side, white on the other, with a whole lot of grey in the middle.

Doing so opens us up to considering nuance, operating from a place of truth seeking instead of truth telling, not associating too closely with our ideas, making better decisions and driving humanity forward.

But then, even this very idea can be subject to scrutiny, for as I said in my opening, seeing things in black and white can be beneficial under certain circumstances — such as a decision needing to be made quickly.

Sometimes it pays to simplify.

But more often than not, we should consider nuance.

April 15, 2020




Steve Glaveski


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