The grey area is often the place where the most interesting things happen. That space between black and white where possibilities open up. But, it is also where we can feel most uncomfortable.


The certainty of knowing is something we seem to crave as 21st century humans. To know definitively one way or the other. “Well, c’mon, which is it? In or out, black or white, success or failure, good or bad?”.

This sort of binary thinking inevitably ignores the possibility that things can often be “in-between”. Not as clear-cut as we want. And, that there is often a grey area where it becomes very difficult to say how something will pan out.

Yet unknown

It is sometimes possible to say more definitely what might be, either through experience or by applying logic. But, when we enter the grey area, things are different. Operating in the grey area is very much about knowing that you are in it. It cannot be a zone of blind optimism or nihilistic pessimism. Because it is neither of those — it is something yet unknown.

Grey areas could appear in all manner of things. Perhaps in relation to a colleague’s actions that seem odd, but where you decide to wait and see because it is yet unclear what is going on. Or, it may be a new cup cake flavour you introduced in your cake shop, where it is still too early to tell if people like it or not.

Risk appetite

The problem with the grey area is that it is very easy to berate ourselves if things turn out badly. For allowing things to have developed in such-and-such a way. This is why it is so important to know when you are operating in the grey area, and what risks that brings. So, that your decision is fully conscious. Fully conscious that it is too complex (or too early) to predict how things might develop (more technically, this is known as the problem of induction). Hindsight is 20/20, right?

grey areaUnderstanding situational risk is critical then. It may be alright to see how things pan out in relation to the slightly odd behaviour of a colleague in one situation, but entirely dangerous in another.

If I am a nurse and I suspect that the surgeon walking into the theatre is somehow disorientated, I would probably not wait to see how things pan out during the operation. The grey area poses too much risk. We would need to know in black and white that the surgeon is of sound mind to operate. 

But, life is not always like this.

Different realms

We enter an entirely different realm of activity when we talk about developing a new skill, for example. Learning and growth depend on our willingness to take a risk and have-a-go. This is crucial. Like a child learning to walk. And, this can be done in a safe way.

Often, the risks we perceive are illusions and mental fabrications borne out of false fears. And, if we fail to recognise when this is the case, we only hold ourselves back. Because we are unwilling to enter the grey area of learning and possibility even when there are no real risks involved. Perceived risks and actual risks are two different things!

Final words

So, our willingness to be in the grey area is directly proportional to the risks and benefits involved. And, that will vary by situation. The operating theatre is not the same as trialing a new cup cake flavour. And, we need to recognise, which is which.

It all starts with awareness.

Do you know in what realm you are operating? Are you in the grey area? And, if so, are you aware of the risks and benefits, both perceived and actual?


Find out more about Harsha’s work