Category Archives: Surface Thinkers’ Rx

STRx Part 1: There is No Such Thing As Shades Of Gray

First of all, let’s get those quasi-kinky, faux S&M thoughts out of your head . . . this post has nothing to do with the movie.

This is the first part of the Surface Thinkers’ Rx Series, where we challenge our brain machines to look a level deeper.  We explore a thing called “critical thinking” where we search for an understanding that lies beyond spoon-fed conclusions.

The term “Shades of Gray” seems like a great place to start — it’s a basic, widespread idea which is easy for our visual brains to latch on to. It’s also completely fucking wrong.

In English, we use the term, “shades of gray” to express an understanding that lies beyond the cold, hard edges of perceived reality. Usually, if someone is said to see the shades of gray it’s a compliment to their superior empathy and perception. I remember in an episode of Ally McBeal, a t.v. series from the late 90’s, the term was used to poetically paint the perceptions of the main character. For those of you who don’t remember, Ally McBeal was a ridiculous woman who let lovesickness dictate her career choices. And yeah, I watched way too many episodes.

But . . . what if . . .

Take, for example, this image of a newspaper image of an orca in the real paper version of The Seattle Times:

This image made from an image in The Seattle Times, June 17, 2018.

What shades would you say made up the whale? Maybe you would say, “black and white”. Orcas are black and white.

But then maybe some ass-licker student raises their hand in class and says, “actually, there are many shades of gray in this picture. The white isn’t actually white if you look closely. It’s gray!”

Well done, Ass-licker!

Actually, sorry Ass-licker, your arrogant notion that you hold a truthier truth than truth — that there is no such thing as black and white — is wrong.

Let’s look closer.

Close-up view of that orca.

Even closer:

Super zoomed-in zoomy look of that same orca pic.

Now we’re close enough to see what every printer already knows.

If you zoom in far enough, you see this image wasn’t printed with black, white, and 20 shades of gray ink. It was printed with varying sizes of black ink dots. There is ink. And there is “not ink”. This image is binary. Yes or no. Right or wrong. At the whitest parts, you can see there is no ink, not a light shade of gray ink that got stamped down.

There is no gray.

So when you’re given a headline, and then you’re fed a different headline with a little extra info that makes you think there may be no right or wrong answer to a problem  .  .  .  that is not your cue to say, “well, I guess there are many shades of gray in this world and there is no right answer. Absolute truth is a fallacy.”


That is your cue to think, “well, shit, I guess I need to go a lot deeper down and learn more specific details about this topic to understand it clearly.”

If you see shades of gray, you’re not looking closely enough. Put your swim mask on and dive beneath the surface of understanding. There are really fucking cool tropical fish down there. (And black and white orcas.)

Me hunting Nemo in Thailand. Photo credit: Suzanne van der Veeken.

Are You a Surface Thinker? — New Surface Thinkers’ Rx Series

Are you a surface thinker?

Let’s test you and find out.

Do you cling to the surface of understanding like these thrown-overboard-undesirables cling to topside to breathe?

Photo credit: Hakan Norberg

If you read a headline, do you investigate further before you consider the headline part of your vast wealth of understanding? Or do you cockily throw that half-assed version of understanding on the table during group conversations like a merit badge representing your intellect?

Do you think many things are obvious?

Do you think ALL things are to a degree obvious?

Do you scoff and say, “well obviously,” a lot?

My friend, if you answered, “yes, no, yes, yes, yes, yes,” you might be a surface thinker. But fear not! The vast depth of beauty lying beyond that reflective surface Narcissus fell captive to is accessible to you!

If someone asked you to estimate the number of fish in this cove, how could you count all the sardines from the top? It’s only by submerging down into the depths that you can number the layers.

“Under the sea, Under the sea, Darling it’s better, Down where it’s wetter, Take it from me.” Me Swimming with Sardines in Thailand. Photo credit: Suzanne Van Der Veeken

This is the beginning of a series of posts called, “Surface Thinkers’ Rx”. I want to give you alternate viewpoints to consider . . . viewpoints that I believe can assist you in understanding not just the topics at hand, but also in understanding understanding. I hope to help you learn how to shift your own camera angle . . . and to swap out lenses on the fly.


Question what you consider to be “obvious” truths. Question in a pure way — not just in a way you are told to question by a group or specific person with an agenda. Otherwise, your “questioning” reverts back to more spoon-fed acceptance of headlines.

Be Curious.

Let yourself find joy in the curiosity you once relished as a child. The curiosity that let you rapidly expand your knowledge and understanding in a way that let’s you survive as an adult. Think of how much knowledge you amassed in such a short amount of time! You became fluent in a foreign language, grasped the concepts of: basic math, social interactions, dexterity, bike-riding, that touching hot shit on a stove can burn you, reading, writing, art, singing, how to maintain a priceless piece of equipment — your human body, and so much more. That is all difficult shit to learn from scratch!! Yet you acquired these capabilities because you were born with a burning craving for deep understanding and mastery. Find that hunger again. Satisfy it for its own sake.

Have faith in the possibility that there is always more to the story than you grasp . . . always more beneath the surface. And remember that this kind of faith is the prerequisite of genius.

Some call it humility.

Put another way, I say hubris is the greatest threat to intellect. Kill your hubris, embrace the depths you do not yet know. Come dive with me, under the sea!

PART 1: There is No Such Thing as Shades of Gray