Finding beauty in the grey

If every choice was a simple black or white, would life be easier? Maybe.

“Don’t be grey.”

I received this advice from a classmate I met early on in business school. It was about focus, and being decisive. In grad school, every potential course and future job sounds so interesting. You could easily lose track of your own goals and follow what everyone else deemed the next big thing. Don’t be one of those people who has no backbone, he told me. Don’t be grey.

His confidence was alluring. Before you know it, we were dating.

This black and white view permeated every aspect of my boyfriend’s being. He knew the job he wanted post-graduation. And what he planned to do over summer. He had already selected his close friends. At first I felt guilty. Why am I so indecisive? Why don’t I know what I want? But he treated me as if I also already knew where I was going. If he saw the world as either right or wrong, I was clearly in the right.

The quote came up again at a guest-lecture about team management. A CEO brought in by one of our professors advised us to be decisive about setting a vision. “Have a clear goal for your team,” he instructed. “Don’t be grey.” I scribbled the phrase in my notebook, and underlined it three times.

Socially, not being grey meant sorting people into categories. Acceptable company, or not. I found myself operating in the grey here, mentally editing categories as I got to know classmates better. I had evidence that my boyfriend was not always so black and white about people, either. Often, when we would head out to an event, he would chastise me about the guests. Don’t you know I don’t like this person? But then he would be laughing with that person an hour later.

Unfortunately, my own position crumbled only a few months into our relationship. It happened on a group sailing trip. I was seasick for 5 days straight. While my classmates tanned and played in the sea, I spent the week getting very closely acquainted with a series of vomit bags. My boyfriend was supportive, and one day joined me on a ferry that the trip leader organised to give myself and two other seasick travellers a small respite from the waves.

He waited until return to unleash his disappointment. You annoyed everyone. You were in a bad mood the entire time. You’re no fun to be around. In truth, I was not fun to be around. So I apologised profusely. Excuses would signal grey.

From then on, all of my emotions stood out in stark black. You’re too moody. You’re too emotional. You’re excited one minute and sad the next. Why can’t your moods stay like mine? His moods did not rise one minute and fall the next. They flipped wholly, like a light switch. White. Then black. Where was the room for understanding? The shades of grey?

Black and white sounds strong. Powerful. Professionally, black and white made sense. I set three career goals, and ticked them off methodically over the graduate program. But then, things went grey. The job that I ended up taking after grad school was one I applied for on a whim. Maybe it was not right, as I quit after two years. But maybe it was, as it led to the dream job I have now.

I find the allure of black and white becoming more grey. It works in some cases. But in others it simply does not apply. Particularly cases having to do with people. The best movie characters aren’t perfectly good. Or perfectly bad. They’re a complex mix of good intentions and flawed outcomes. Relationships are grey. There are ups and downs. You find yourself sometimes annoyed at friends for their shortcomings. But you keep people in your life because they add something. It’s this mix of black and white that creates beauty. Understanding. And space to relax. Realising that you yourself are a patchwork of black and white — it’s comforting to know that there is space for imperfection. Space for shading. Forgiving someone is mixing black and white into grey — and accepting it.

Many of my career decisions have come not from following one distinct path, but from mixing different parts of the palette. In creating grey. The world needs more t-shaped, wide-skilled people. It needs more understanding, too.

Marketer. Writing about startups, media, and anything related to brands. Former @McKinsey @Ogilvy @ProcterGamble. Co-founder @OceanBottle.