Dark Gray Paint

Alex Steffen
May 20, 2015 · 4 min read

If you want to try to change the world, you will inevitably encounter the guy with the bucket of dark gray paint.

This is the guy who in the middle of any discussion of any new proposal, innovation, plan or solution demands that everyone in the room revisit how fucking horrible the reality of the problem is. Working on an idea for clean energy as climate action? He’s there to tell you about starving polar bears you won’t save. Working on imagining a new public health program in a poor country? He’s there to remind you of the sick babies who’ll die anyway. Working on a hunch about a more sustainable product design? He’s there to remind you of the dark mountains of toxic trash that will pile up in China despite your efforts. You’re working on envisioning your contribution to the world as vividly as possible, and splash! Dark gray paint.

The dark gray paint guy always frames these interventions in terms of “realism” and savvy. “Let’s be realistic…” he begins. “Call me cynical, but…” he starts. “That’s a good idea, but don’t we need to be practical and remember…?” But tossing gray paint on new ideas is not realism, it’s a fucked-up power play.

Maybe the guy’s deeply depressed, in despair about the world, and feels a little better about that when others around him feel bad, too. Maybe he’s one of those smart and manipulative types who figures it makes him look smarter to cut down other people’s thinking. Maybe he possesses misplaced idealism, manifesting in the idea that unless we all acknowledge the injustice and oppression of the world with every breath, we’re insufficiently radical… or, maybe he’s just an asshole.

The one thing he’s not, is helpful.

In fact, experienced worldchangers know that dark gray paint is never a helpful thing while we’re trying to envision a new possibility. It doesn’t make the plan better, its just dispirits the planners. It dampens our passion and creativity without giving us anything in return. And for what? Despair and cynicism are far worse problems in the world than smart people trying hard to do new things, even if they fail.

There are, of course, some things that you need to do when launching into a new idea:

1. Know the systems. Know as much about the systems you’re working within/ trying to change as you possibly can. Do your homework. Know the politics. Know how your solution will work, if it does. You have an obligation to have a reasonably sophisticated understanding of the actual problem you’re attempting to fix: solutions framed as “so simple they’ll work anywhere” have a tendency to work nowhere.

2. Know the history. Learn about the solutions that have been tried before in your area. Which solutions failed? Which solutions had serious unintended consequences, or even made things worse? Which worked? Why don’t they work now? You have an obligation not to fail in the same way someone else has already failed before.

3. Know the craft. Find smart dedicated people who understand what they’re doing and learn from them. Making change isn’t a state of mind, it’s a craft: your allies have a huge array of practices, approaches, useful tricks, intelligent shortcuts and insightful stories that you can benefit from. If you spend time with them, they’ll share. One good mentor’s worth a dozen enthusiastic acquaintances. Having a little gang of brilliant colleagues you see once in a while will teach you a lot more than listening to self-labelled “change agents” at conferences. Keeping a journal of what you learn helps. Reading a lot about people who’s minds you admire helps. Finding social scenes where thoughtful solutions matter helps even more. You have an obligation to be as skillful at your work that you can be.

If you know your systems, know your history and know your craft and you have ideas that excite you, keep going! If you want to test the realism of your ideas, seek out tough-minded experts and honest peers and ask them, but only when you’re ready to make use of the critiques. Criticism, when sought, becomes a tool; seek it.

If you don’t know your systems, history and craft, your job now is learning, not inventing. Get on it. Start now.

In either case, stay away from any angry-looking dudes walking around with buckets in their hands. Don’t invite them to the party. Drop them from the discussion list. Defriend them. Block their twitter accounts.

You do not owe it to anyone to feel discouraged for their benefit. Let yourself get colorful. Enjoy the exploration.

PS: If you find yourself being someone who often tosses paint, perhaps you have some learning to do as well. Are you genuinely creating the biggest impact you could be? Is there a way you could offer your insight in a more supportive and effective way? Are you even really aware of how your “realism” is landing on your colleagues and allies?


Originally published at www.alexsteffen.com.


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    Alex Steffen

    Written by

    I think about the future for a living. Writer, public speaker, strategic advisor. Projects: Worldchanging; Carbon Zero; Heroic Future; The Nearly Now.