They say the human eye can distinguish 500 shades of gray. I’ve seen at least 473 of them in the past few days.

Frank and I are picking paint for a much-needed home refresh. And since Frank’s choice is almost always, “Whatever you say, Princess” I have a decision to make. It’s not black and white, of course. It’s gray. The question is, which gray?

Turns out a lot of decision-making in business and in life is mirrored in the pursuit of the perfect paint.

It’s all about your perspective.

Look at things from one angle and they’re absolutely perfect. Change your point of view, and suddenly you have a different opinion.

That gorgeous gray I saw a minute ago just turned the color of the muddy Mississippi River. It’s smart to look at every angle before you reach a decision. And, shining a light on it can change everything.

Context counts.

Same paint, different wall? The appearance changes drastically. Cloudy skies…bright sunshine…a lamp turned on at night? These can’t be the same shade of gray, can they?

The oak woodwork, the turquoise couch, the jewel tones in the Chinese rug…everything around it influences the way we see that gray. Even the shade of white already on the walls affects our perception of the new hue.

Maybe we can’t consider a swath of paint—or anything else—in isolation. But it’s smart to take into account all the other things that influence our impressions.

Research makes a difference.

In my first pass at the paint chips, I picked a couple colors I liked. Ran them by Frank (you know what he said) and declared the choice made. Then, on the advice of people who know way more than I do, I picked up some sample cans, put that gray paint on the walls…and saw purple.

Now, I wear purple. I carry a purple portfolio. For years, I drove a purple car. I like purple. But I don’t want purple all over our house.

What did I learn from the purple paint? Going with my gut works for me often. But sometimes there’s a better way to reach a decision. It involves time and deliberation and, yes, research.

I read up on undertones and finishes and LRVs. (Light Reflectance Value measures the percentage of light a paint color reflects; of course that has an impact on how you “see” the color and how you feel in the room.)

Understanding even a little bit about the impact colors can have set me up for a more productive trip to the paint store.

What’s under the surface?

Those paint chips I was looking at—they were all gray. And, every one of them had an undertone that made its particular gray different from the others. The undertones were blue, red, yellow, even purple or green. A gray with a blue undertone looks nothing like a gray with a yellow undertone.

Of course the idea of an underlying quality or feeling applies to more than color theory. When it comes to conversation, we might notice the sexual undertone of an exchange. Or the racist undertone of a political speech. Direction from the boss could have a threatening undertone. We derive meaning not just from the words but from the tone and the undertone.

Whether it’s a look or a sound, the undertone has an impact. Take the time to go deeper, and you may find that your first interpretation was superficial. Or just plain wrong.

Look beyond the label.

Research led me to three new grays; I brought sample cans home and put them on the walls. Funny what a difference even a semi-informed decision can make. To tell you the truth, I could probably live with any of these colors.

Now that I’ve settled in with them, I’m ditching Abalone. Its red undertone takes it toward taupe. And I’m reluctantly passing on Silver Lining. I love the name—the idea of Silver Lining for our house makes my heart sing. Sadly, it looks blue in the sunlight.

Smack in the middle, with both blue and red undertones and the ideal LRV: Cement Gray. It’ll be perfect, I’m sure, in spite of its less-than-poetic name. And I’m still sorry I can’t go with Silver Lining.

And that makes me ponder how often I’ve bought something because its label attracted me. Or passed up a product that would be perfect, but I didn’t recognize it because it had a lame name. It makes me sound embarrassingly superficial, but I’m pretty sure I’m not alone. Smart marketers know they can get us with the right name.

And when we’re the ones doing the marketing, we’d best take care to choose our words carefully. They can’t judge a book by its cover, but if the cover is all they have to go on, it’ll have an impact. Our job is to make it a positive one.

There you have it. Lessons from the pursuit of the perfect paint. Maybe you’ve had some experience with undertones that took you by surprise. Or you looked past the label and liked what you saw.

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