There are times when I really appreciate black-and-white. I love the simplicity, impact and high contrast of black-and-white. I can be attracted to black-and-white in fashion, objects, textiles and art. It appeals to my minimalist aesthetic. As a fine arts undergrad in the mid 80’s, I had a graphic design professor whose often repeated adage was “if your design doesn’t work in black-and-white, it won’t work in colour.” I saw value in this advice and often applied it after graduating as I oversaw product and packaging design in the early days of my family’s business and later when l directed design of collateral and promotional material for numerous arts based projects. It helped me to stay focused on basic design principles to create strong results. However, through my work and life as a creative and coach I’ve also come to appreciate how black-and-white can be limiting.
If we choose to see the world, our choices and abilities through a purely black-and-white lens, it can be limiting and even dangerous. In the last few years there has been a noticeable upswing in black-and-white thinking in society at large around public health issues, the climate crisis, politics and human rights issues. The impact of this black-and-white thinking has been polarizing and divisive. It reduces everyone and everything to being seen as good or bad, right or wrong. It limits our ability to even try to understand the complexity of important issues, to create compromise and find solutions.
Black-and-white thinking can have similarly limiting and dangerous impacts on our professional lives and careers. Especially when it comes to our thinking about our abilities, options and relationships as creative professionals.
As a coach, I’ve become pretty practiced at recognizing black-and-white thinking in my clients. An alert goes off whenever I hear the vocabulary of black-and-white thinking:
For example, when I hear a client present their abilities in terms of good or bad. “I’m bad at… promoting myself, finances, time management, networking (or fill in the blank)”. I point out their black-and-white perspective on their abilities and help them see how it holds them back in these areas. Telling ourselves we are bad at something can stop us from taking responsibility and action to learn skills that are critical to building a sustainable creative practice or career.
Artists and creatives can also present black-and-white thinking in imagining everything they do in terms of the extremes of success or failure or all or nothing. For example: “I have to focus on one medium or art form - to be successful” “I have to sell out or say yes to everything in order to make enough money” “My proposal failed to be accepted so I have to ditch my idea altogether and move on to something else.”
These are just some ways that black-and-white thinking can keep artists and creatives from seeing that building a sustainable and fulfilling career is really complex, requires gradual steps, practice and ongoing adaptation. Our options, abilities and professional relationships are seldom if ever black-and-white. They are usually somewhere in between - somewhere in the continuum between black-and-white.
Often when I am helping a client to see that they are seeing their abilities, options or professional relationships through a purely black-and-white lens, I share a little factoid. That fact is that humans are able to distinguish more shades of grey than most other colours. We have this ability. I invite my clients to consider the value the grey brings to a work of art. They inevitably talk about depth, dimension, nuance, perspective. At its best, art and creativity in all of its various forms invites all of us to see nuance and details. To consider new or multiple perspectives. To appreciate and better understand complexity, ambiguity, contradiction and absurdity. I know that many artists and creatives are particularly devoted and skilled at seeing and bringing these things to our attention whether it be through painting, photography, writing, dance, comedy, film or some other form. And yet, often when it comes to seeing yourselves, your options and opportunities, many artists and creatives tend to reduce their thinking to black-and-white. Limiting their options to two. Getting in the way of learning, seeing their career prospects and taking action to various aspects of their creative practice, business or career.
Where might you be limiting your options or opportunities
as a creative professional
because of black-and-white thinking?
For the sake of our professional growth and development, I want to make a case for embracing grey. November can be pretty grey where I live in Toronto, perhaps where you are too. A perfect time to explore how venturing into the grey might help you see or create more possibilities for yourself as a creative professional.
Image Credit: Cylla Von Tiedemann