The Value of Grey Thinking

One of the most common questions we receive, unsurprisingly, is along the lines of What one piece of advice would you recommend to become a better thinker?

The question is kind of cheating. There is, of course, no one thing, and if Farnam Street is a testament to any idea, it’s that you must pull from many disciplines to achieve overall wisdom. No truly great thinker is siloed in a small territory.

But a common experience tends to occur as you rid yourself of ideology and narrowness, as you venture deeper and deeper into unfamiliar territory; and it’s worth thinking about it ahead of time. It goes by many names, but a fair one might be Grey Thinking.

Thinking in Grey

Children love torturing their parents and teachers with the relentless Why? The chain of whys can be endless — Why does the doggy pant? He’s hot. Why? I’m hot and I don’t pant. Yes, but he has fur, and doesn’t sweat. Why does he have fur? To keep him warm. Why don’t I have fur then? OK that’s enough. 

If you’re a parent, you’ve probably had this experience. It’s agitating in the moment, but it’s just a symptom of the child’s view of the world: Something to be explored. Their views are not fixed yet.

As we get older, we start to get rigid. We are forced to take tests with definite answers — A, B, C, or D? How well we do at these determines, to an extent, our position in life. The shortcomings of this system are well documented so we won’t rehash them. But a major symptom of this style of learning, combined with our natural proclivity to land on easily digestible answers, is that we start thinking in rigid categories: War is good. War is bad. Capitalism is good. Capitalism is bad. America is Socialist. America is a Free Market System. We must support our troops. College is useless. College is indispensable.

And so on. These slogans become substitutes for actual understanding, and it’s not as benign as it seems. The slogan isn’t just a shorthand: It replaces thinking for many people, because it’s hard to generate real understanding. As discussed in the Eager to be Wrong piece, it’s a lot easier to land somewhere simple and stay there. It requires less energy.

But the fact is, the reality is all grey area. All of it. There are very few black and white answers and no solutions without second-order consequences.

This fundamental truth is easy to grasp in theory and hard to use in practice, every day. It takes a substantial deprogramming to realize that life is all grey, that all reality lies on a continuum. This is why quantitative and scale-based thinking is so important. But most don’t realize that quantitative thinking isn’t really about math; it’s about the idea that The dose makes the poison. 

The dose/poison idea is the opposite of the slippery slope argument favored by the ideologue. It starts with this, and then the whole thing goes to hell. Well, maybe, but not necessarily and not usually. Nearly all things are OK in some dose but not OK in another dose. That is the way of the world, and why almost everything connected to practical reality must be quantified, at least roughly.

This isn’t to say that some things shouldn’t be stamped on hard, and fast. Doing heroin even once is probably a bad idea. But make sure to use the right mental model for the right situation. We can re-frame our slogans above: War is awful but history shows it to be occasionally necessary, and a very complex phenomenon. Capitalism is enormously productive but has many limitations. Some socialist institutions actually work well in a capitalist economy, but pure socialism hasn’t tended to work at all. College has its pluses and minuses; it works for some and not for others. Support for soldiers may carry some conditions. And so on.

If any of these ruffle your feathers, then good. The first step towards thinking in 3D is realizing that you carry many of your cherished positions too strongly. Most of practical reality lies outside the realm of mathematical certainty.

Lyndon Johnson

There’s a wonderful series of books on Lyndon Johnson, the 36th President of the United States. By all accounts, LBJ was not someone you’d like to marry into your family. He was a relentless politician, a climber, a habitual liar, and treated many people like dirt, including his wife Lady Bird. He also embroiled the country in Vietnam, for which many never forgave him.

On the other hand, LBJ was a deep Southerner who cared deeply about the rights of the poor and the rights of people of color, at a time when few whites did, and even fewer whites in power did. He used his political power to enact Civil Rights legislation that seemingly no one else could get through, and with his Great Society programs, gave millions of poor and elderly people dignity, both of which we basically take for granted today, but were an enormous struggle to enact.

LBJ was not popular in his time, though history has been a bit more friendly to him. But the question stands…was he a good guy? Do we admire him or can we barely contain our hatred?

To an ideologue, LBJ fits into some category or another. He’s despicable, and his crimes cannot be made up for. His lies and his personal reputation make him unforgivable. Alternatively, by passing Civil Rights, maybe LBJ is something of a dark hero — a flawed, Batman-like figure who we needed but couldn’t appreciate in his time.

The truth is, of course, in between. He’s all of these things. The problem lies with us, the categorizers. We want to place him somewhere and move on. You may fairly, on balance, think LBJ detracted more than he added. That’s fine. But that’s not what most people want to do — they want to put the black hat or the white hat on him. Villain or hero.

This is a special case of a broader mental phenomenon that we’re doing all the time. This music sucks! This music is the best thing ever created! Yoga is for weirdos. Yoga is the only way to achieve mental peace. 

It’s only once you can begin divorcing yourself from good-and-bad, black-and-white, category X&Y type thinking that your understanding of reality starts to fit together properly. Putting things on a continuum, assessing the scale of their importance and quantifying their effects, understanding both the good and the bad, is the way to do it.  Understanding the other side of the argument better than your own, a theme we hammer on ad nauseum, is the way to do it. Because truth always lies somewhere in between, and the discomfort of being uncertain is preferable to the certainty of being wrong.

It isn’t easy, but it’s not supposed to be.