Why Being Grey Means You're Not Being Stupid

Read time —
4 Minutes
Last updated
March 27, 2024

What is it about being grey?

I mean pretty much every decision you make is to deliver an outcome you see as certain.

Our choices become binary by definition. It’s either yes or no, or black or white.

But, there is a problem here.

Our world doesn’t work like that. Entropy — the name we give uncertainty, randomness, and disorder will influence our lives.

So making black or white decisions seems foolish. Hell, some might even say it’s reckless to be so bold when the future is so uncertain.

Our challenge is we want to be certain.

Nothing brings us more comfort than knowing what lies ahead.

So, how do we overcome this?

The answer comes from doing the opposite.

We need to invert.

Inversion is a mental model that enables us to escape the limits of binary decision-making. But inversion doesn’t just work with decision-making, it works everywhere.

Looking for the opposite — inverting a problem — brings new perspectives. It allows us to see non-obvious solutions traditional thinking prevents us from realising.

Here, I will explain how trying to be great isn’t always the best approach.

This article covers:

Stop Trying to Be Stupid

Trying to stand out will often leave you disappointed.

I used to think trying to be great was the way to get ahead. If I could be the best salesman I could be the next sales manager — and if I can be a great sales manager I could be a great sales director.

Oh boy, what I fool I was.

I won a national sales award but was often late getting to my first call. I hit my sales targets, but frequently held my end-of-day wrap-up call on my driveway. And with a subtle sniffle, I would take time off sick.

Yes, I thought being great — as in being the best salesman — was enough.

It wasn’t.

Six years in and no promotions ended with us parting company…

But that isn’t where this story ends.

No, six months later — and realising the grass wasn’t quite so green on the other side, I applied to come back. In the interview, my former manager served some home truths.

Yes, my sales skills hadn't gone unnoticed, but so had all the bad things. And they were far more of a problem than I appreciated. Being a great salesman wasn’t enough.

In fact, from an attention perspective, not being stupid had far more value than I had clearly failed to grasp.

“It’s like you need to stop being stupid.”

It was a simple throw-away comment from my manager. A quote I’d read, but not fully understood until now came to mind.

It is remarkable how much long-term advantage people like us have gotten by trying to be consistently not stupid, instead of trying to be very intelligent.” — Charlie Munger

In my first term, I was the opposite of this. In trying to be intelligent (brilliant), I ignored the impact of my consistently bad timekeeping and attendance.

In believing I was great, I was letting stupidity appear.

So, I vowed to become the grey man.

I still wanted to be a great salesman, but I had to make sure I didn’t stand out for the wrong reasons.

I ensured I delivered the basics right. I started early and I finished late. Sickness wasn’t for me, I was always at work regardless of how I felt.

And in not pushing to be recognised, I was seen for all the right reasons. Promotions came after eighteen months of not being consistently stupid and I amassed six in an eight-year spell at the company.

Invert, Always Invert

Inversion is a simple mental model.

It is a great framework to help you see your decisions and problems differently. It was Albert Einstein who said you can’t solve problems with the same thinking that created them.

Inversion is exactly how begin thinking differently.

Entropy means we live in an uncertain world. Escaping the black-or-white choices we seem so focused on making is essential. It will help you deal with uncertainty, randomness, and disorder that we all face.

Inversion leads me to think in grey terms.

Think of options, rather than outcomes when considering a choice. What you want is an array of choices you can choose from when things don’t go according to plan — which they often don’t.

So, as the German scientist, Carl Gustav Jacob Jacobi once said: “man muss immer umkehren” (or loosely translated, “invert, always invert.”

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