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Shades of Gray

December 26, 2022 | Letters

Author: Nicole Olynk Widmar, Associate Head and Professor, Purdue University, Department of Agricultural Economics

Most of the pivotal aspects of ‘what we do’ in life can be boiled down to the decisions we make — big ones that shape the paths of future possibilities, or little ones that stack up to become who we are or how we behave.

Most of the time, though, the answer to our decisions is, ‘it depends’. Should we be transparent with our consumers? Well, yes, generally…but make sure that people are asking and be sure you aren’t just sharing for your benefit instead of theirs. Now that I think about it…I guess the answer to that question can also be bluntly put – it depends. Why do we have such a hard time saying no to people? Well, we have a deep-seated fear of missing out, and we want people to like us (or at least not contribute to them disliking us). But taking on too much is a decision we make. It isn’t simple, and there is not a right and a wrong answer. Again…it depends.

We like to think that you get what you deserve — we let children experience the natural consequences of their behavior but are shocked (and angry) when we experience them ourselves. Perhaps it is because we know that life isn’t fair and you do not always get what you deserve, and neither does that other guy. It’s also entirely possible (actually, it will definitely happen), that you make a decision that is 100% correct but suffer a poor outcome. Worse yet, it’s also entirely possible, and it will happen, that you will make a decision that is patently wrong, but experience success. This is dangerous, because at best you learned nothing and at worst you learned that doing the wrong thing paid off.

We could lament at great lengths the challenges associated with decision making itself, but relatively little time has been spent on delving into the alternatives, options or outcomes. Is it really a win or lose situation? Is it black and white, or are there shades of gray? I propose in my own class that there are very few (if any) decisions that we face for which there are really no alternatives and thus for which we are stuck with the status quo or only a single option. I further propose that there are very few decisions that we face for which there are really only two options — most of the time we can think creatively to craft a whole suite of options. Arguably, the shades of gray associated with a question are related to where you fit into the situation: “When you’re the victim of the behavior, it’s black and white; when you’re the perpetrator, there are a million shades of gray.” – Dr. Laura Schlessinger

But, then again, there are a few situations — not many, but a few — for which there really is one way or the other with no wiggle room. As the sayings go, you cannot be a little bit pregnant or a little bit married. You are either married or you are not. Games that we have created as games, completed with known and accepted rulebooks, are another example: “It’s about you. If you win, it’s you; if you lose, it’s you. Black and white. Nowhere to hide.” – Greg Rusedski

The catch in our daily lives becomes that we do not have known and accepted rulebooks. Even in the most structured of business environments and in the legal arena, there are creative ways to structure deals or new contracts to be developed. Now, at some point you may find yourself facing a judgement, whether in life or legally, in which an ultimate “answer” will be determined on a given matter. But that happens in an extremely small share of situations. Most of time we have negotiations, formal or otherwise, and we arrive at some middle place between one extreme and the other, or shall we say we arrive on a shade of gray. We have interpretation by one party versus another on situations which are generally wide open for creative solution development and many, many shades of gray.