Our growing tendency to think in black and white terms is troubling. I see it in politics, in culture and in business. The thing is, decisions that matter are almost never black and white. The real world is a crazy place with lots of moving parts. Nothing is ever obvious and everything works in shades of grey.

If you think about it, the only power you really have to impact how life turns out for you is through the choices you make. Make good choices and your chances of leading a relatively happy life with a successful career increase. Make bad choices, your chances decline. As murky as the world is, that much is clear.

And to make good decisions you have to think critically by challenging common wisdom, challenging your own beliefs, asking lots of good questions of smart people and looking at things from different points of view. That’s how you arrive at smart decisions. Preconceived notions and strongly held beliefs, aka black and white thinking, impede that process.

Related: Think for Yourself

Experience has a way of teaching us just how complex the real world can be. “Keep it simple” may be a great mantra, but you usually have to consider all sorts of factors and look at things from lots of different angles to arrive at what, in hindsight, seems like the obvious answer.

Albert Einstein was famous for thought experiments where he imagined what it would be like to ride on a beam of light and the affect that would have on space and time relative to a stationary observer. But he didn’t just come up with E=MC2 out of the blue; that took years of scientific debate and black-boarding.

I once joined a new CEO in a late-stage startup that was going nowhere after squandering tons of capital. As we struggled to come up with a turnaround strategy, my boss said, “When you take over a company it takes three months to figure out what’s really going on and another three months to figure out how to fix it.”

He was right; that’s just about how long it took, followed by five years of dealing with obstacles, creative problem solving, coming up with some relatively complex strategies and a lot of execution to finally accomplish what our predecessors couldn’t and achieve a successful IPO.

Related: On Being Open-Minded

Things are never as they seem. What we typically describe as out-of-the-box thinking is actually a process of questioning conventional wisdom, challenging the status quo, and looking at problems differently to discover what’s really going on and arrive at good solutions. Black and white thinking is an impediment to that process.

If you want to be successful in a complex world, learn to challenge conventional wisdom and question your own beliefs. If it sounds too good to be true, it usually is. And when it comes to making important decisions, don’t take anything for granted and do look at things from different perspectives. That’s how you do it.

Image credit Fabian via Flickr