I first heard the term “Shades of Grey” from a Billy Joel Song. It’s a hidden gem on his final pop album. I always liked the tune, even from the very first listen and it resonates with me more and more as I get older. I guess that’s because I’m at the age that Billy was when he wrote the song. I really dig the opening stanza. The lyrics are:
Some things were perfectly clear, seen with the vision of youth.
No doubts and nothing to fear, I claimed the corner on truth
These days it’s harder to say I know what I’m fighting for.
My faith is falling away. I’m not that sure anymore.
That perfectly summarizes some recent big events in and around me as I write this.
Recently the importance of understanding the ‘shades of grey’ in our lives has shown up more and more around me. The first, and one you may have read about was the fight over a confederate statute in my hometown. This is the kind of statue nobody ever sees because it’s been there longer than everyone in town has been alive. Then change started happening around Pittsboro which mirrored the change in the country.
With Pittsboro, the mechanics came from the growth of the whole Raleigh Durham area inclusive of Chapel-Hill. This resulted in a migration of Progressives and Aspirationals out of Chapel Hill south into the Chatham County limits in and around Pittsboro. With the population growth came a change in politics. The new folks, and the issues that are important to them, have clashed with the more traditional views expressed in the western side of our county which, to overly simply, is made up of church going farmers. The county has become Bi-Polar in its political makeup, much like the rest of the country now. As the presidential political season started to ramp up, so did the activism.
I’m not completely sure of the details, and they really aren’t that important. What is important is that in an era of deeply divided politics, and a period of change for the county, a confederate statue standing for over 100 years (since 1907) became a flash point in old vs. new, in right vs. left, and to a certain point, in race vs. race. The groups of people involved in the whole statue debate are the type who only see in black and white. For weeks in my daily commute into town I drove by huge protests which included every political group imaginable. I would drive around the courthouse and see the ‘Daughters of the Confederacy’ on one corner, the ‘Socialist Party’ on another, Conservatives waving Confederate flags in the parking lot, members of the Pride Movement on another corner, etc. It went on for weeks, and in truth, I was able to use it as a bit of a social studies lesson for my 10-year-old trying to explain to him what each group believes every time he expressed his opinion of their foolishness. There were real clashes resulting in arrests, chicanery via professional protesters who were getting paid to protest and every other kind of thing a political carnival brings out of the wood work. I didn’t really have an opinion except that to me the biggest irony, one that my wife pointed out, was that the statue was in front of the county’s courthouse for most of its life. The old courthouse was converted into a historical museum a few years back, so the protests were to take down a historical statue, in front of a historical museum. That didn’t make logical sense, but then again, none of the effort really made sense other than it was all a way for locals to take part in what was really a national debate.
Then it happened again, a perspective that was black and white caused a massive and unnecessary issue when shades of grey were really what was needed to avoid it all. This second thing was the thing that really inspired this article as it had such an impact on me personally. Unfortunately, I can’t go into it too deeply as it relates to a highly personal relationship with a very long-term friend. I can still give you some of the important points. Let’s call the person with the issue “Old Friend”. I had a friendship ending argument with Old Friend over a third individual, a new friend, who we’ll call “Mr. Three.”
As I said, Old Friend and Mr. Three were both parts of my circle and consequently they interacted with each other at my social gatherings. After a bit of time, and because of some baked in prejudices from previous life experiences, Old Friend decided that Mr. Three was tantamount to the most evil thing on earth. I can’t underscore this enough. Old Friend really went on a never ending rant. Think of the most liberal transgendered activist debating, i.e. screaming at, an adamant evangelical christian. That’s the level it eventually built up too when Old Friend finally let her feelings known.
This is where the black and white opinion came in which had a huge effect on me personally. The fact that I didn’t expunge Mr. Three from my life immediately upon Old Friends determination that he was the devil incarnate turned Old Friend’s wrath on me. It didn’t help that I refused to modify the patterns of my life, i.e. my social gatherings, to accommodate time with Old Friend without Mr. Three around. This was incomprehensible to Old Friend. The demand to eliminate Mr. Three was, in Old Friend’s opinion, perfectly reasonable. It came down to the concept that Old Friend was ok if I wanted to hang out with an Evil Sub Human, but if Old Friend wanted to spend time with me at one of my gatherings, then it’s perfectly reasonable to kick a scumbag out of my house at their request. For many reasons I could write several articles on, I didn’t agree that Mr. Three was an evil human being nor did I feel like I should make special accommodations for one friend over another, especially as there were children’s relationships involved in these decisions. I’m dancing around much of this as it’s hard to really convey the emotional burden of the exchange as it happened over several months and many hard things were said on both sides.
The important part for this article isn’t the emotions or my loss of a multi-year friend. It’s that Old Friend was very black or white. Mr. Three, when you got to know him, was a bit like the statue in that his personality is really shades of grey. In some ways he was absolutely everything Old Friend hated about some people, and in some ways he was very much exactly what Old Friend loved about some people. Old friend didn’t take the time to get to know Mr. Three, Old Friend just saw the bad, made an emotional connection to other life experiences, and assumed Mr. Three was all bad. I guess the negative traits eradicated the ability to see any/all of the good elements.
Shades of Grey
I am not immune to this concept of only seeing in black and white. There is a period of my life several years ago where I didn’t speak to my brother for probably the better part of a decade over a black and white disagreement. Like the people on the circle in Pittsboro, I was enraged at the politics of my day and on the exact opposite side of my brother. Over time, the totality of that experience along with some of my other life experiences changed my opinions of polar thinking. I stopped seeing in black and white because I realized the long-term negative consequences of it. In the end, the philosophy on either side wasn’t right or wrong, it was as it was. There is good and bad in most options. Everything really is shades of gray.
Unfortunately, as I alluded to earlier, black and white has become a cultural norm. Mrs one of the negative outcomes of the internet and a thousand cable channels. There are uncounted outlets that are all highly polarized in their information. We can choose to only see the opinions that we wish to see. Normal eventually only includes our own beliefs because that’s all we ever see. Everybody is in a huge echo chamber. This unfortunately is a self-fulfilling cycle. Outrage attracts eyeballs and eyeballs attract advertising dollars.
Where do we see in Black and White and need to see Shades of Grey in our work life?
The thing to keep in mind is that thinking in shades of gray is needed at work as well. Often we look at the situation and we feel our company is doing things all wrong, i.e. black and white, but we always forget to consider that decision makers make specific decisions for a reason. If you learn the reason, not just from a high level, but into the nitty-gritty of it, even if the reason is against your personal values, then you have your gray. The thought process would have to be something like: I don’t like X, because it causes Y, but they do X for Z reason. Then go through the exercise where you force yourself to consider the reasons it can be argued that Z is more important than Y.
We tend to experience this type of conflict with our Managers because they are the ones making value judgments between X, Y and Z. Most folks are individual contributors, so we only have a single letter that is of importance to us. The black and white thinking really comes through if what we do is core to the stated mission of the organization and as we get leaner across the whole economy, more of what we do is core to the organization. If you’re a salesperson, you see the world as sales and growth and anything that gets in the way of that is inconceivable. It’s the same thing if you’re a medical practitioner. It’s hard to see shades of gray when organizational priorities ultimately lose the sale or keep a patient from getting the care they need.
It really becomes extra hard to not focus on Black and White when companies are intimately related with our livelihood. If a company is going in what we consider to be a bad direction and it impacts our life and money, then it’s very very difficult to not be emotional and judgemental. The further removed you can make your thinking, the easier it is to see the shades of grey in decisions, even if they have a negative effect on you. A good example of this tendency to become polar when it affects us personally can be seen in the Uber example. If you were a driver for a company with a full-time schedule and benefits and that company was displaced by Uber, it’s very black and white. Uber is bad.
The thing is Uber is good for the transportation sector, it’s trying something new from the industry perspective. The negative is that drivers are experiencing the great risk shift in the move to gig based work. The positive is that Uber really pulled the rug out from the taxi industry and moved the world forward in terms of personalized and affordable transportation. Employees/giggers see Black, Investors see white, consumers see grey.
It’s good to remember that every point about avoiding black and white opinions in the personal world definitely equates to black and white in the professional world. It’s harder at work as emotions in the personal world tend to just have an affect on personal relationships, the professional world can affect us mechanically and financially.
I’ve come up with some takeaways in my reflections on Shades of Grey in our thinking and as a component of our personalities.
The first is that Black and White opinions are really chained to emotional reactions and emotions, in my experience, get in the way of nearly every important decision in our lives. Unfortunately, we can’t get away from that as we are emotional beings.
The second takeaway, at least for me, is that Black and White opinions get in the way of compromise, and compromise, be it at work, with friends, or in politics, is the only way to move the ball forward.
It’s rarely good to be an absolutist, yes you cut yourself off from bad but also some good. The less new experiences you have because of black and white thinking the less rich your life will be.
The echo chamber is bad. Black and white is simply a story we tell ourselves. If we only focus on the specific rightness or wrongness, then we see the same story again and again. It’s easier than ever to do this today. You get stuck in a never-ending loop of lack of progress emotionally and with relationships, personal and professional. This leads to a smaller world, and less impact with things in your life because you are starting back at the beginning of the loop.
Going back to the start of this article, the statue wasn’t good or bad, it was just a statue. It could be used to illustrate how much we’ve changed in the past, or it could be a symbol of evil. There were other options for modifying the statue to meet the changes in our community. They included additions, like a rainbow path leading away from the statue potentially showing growth and change in the world since the statue was first erected. That’s one idea, but the options were endless. These types of modifications were not part of the conversation on either side. The argument by those shouting the loudest, literally and figuratively, was simply “Keep” or “Get Rid Of”. Old Friend could have spent enough time around Mr. Three and seen, much to Old Friend’s shock, they have eerily similar personalities and values. I do believe that may have been a part of the reason for the adverse reaction on the part of Old Friend. Also, it’s possible to be around someone, dislike part of their personality but value other parts of who they are.
Another thought that came to me while writing this article is that you really shouldn’t beat yourself up over the black and white thinking of your youth. Seeing shades of gray is one of the more complex issues of growth as a human. Unfortunately, many people, the kind that like to stand around and protest statues, never grow out of it.
If you tend towards Black and White perspectives, then I think the best thing you can do is to make it an aggressive habit to try and see the good and bad in everyone. You should always question every time there is an absolute in your life. They do exist but are very rare. If you’re a SciFi geek, then you’ll know that this is like the central concept of Ender’s game. Know your enemy so well you love them. If that’s too complex a concept, then I have an easier solution for you to get into the habit of expanding your perspective. Go play Billy Joel’s shades of grey. If you put the song on repeat, then I can honestly say that’s one loop I can totally get behind.
Now with the wisdom of years I try to reason things out
And the only people I fear are those who never have doubts
Save us all from arrogant men, and all the causes they’re for
I won’t be righteous again, I’m not that sure anymore
-Billy Joel – Shades of Grey