Thinking of things as absolutely good or evil can stifle our critical thinking and prevent us from learning valuable lessons.
Dave was a troubled man. His family owned a business that he hated working at and he rebelled. He began smoking when he was very young and then started doing other drugs. He dropped out of school and was later arrested for burglary. He began using methamphetamines in his early twenties. He fought, abused alcohol and stole, ultimately spending 15 years of his life in prison.
But Dave also started a business that helped rehabilitate criminals, giving them an opportunity to earn an honest living for a respected company. His empathy towards a segment of the population that often receives very little opportunity has given them the chance to work in positions ranging from entry level to managerial. His vision and effort has blessed hundreds of lives in a way that many of them never thought was possible.
Later in life, Dave had a mental breakdown ending in a fight with police officers attempting to restrain him. He was subsequently diagnosed with bipolar disorder and later, he sold the company that he founded making him a multi-millionaire.
You may already be familiar with the story of Dave Dahl, the founder of Dave’s Killer Bread. He’s lived a unique life, at different times straddling the divide between good and evil, at least in his actions. Which begs the question, is Dave good or evil? I say neither. Or both. Dave Dahl is an extreme example of what it means to be human, and he’s someone that we can learn a great deal from if we can resist the temptation to draw a knee-jerk conclusion of the man as completely evil. Or completely good.
Humans like to think in terms of absolutes; we seek black and white in a gray world and often fail to see the value in the imperfect. We see countless acts of good or evil but fail to see that the individuals themselves are usually quite gray; they’re neither an absolute good nor are they an absolute evil. They’re human.
One of the unfortunate consequences of this absolutist, black and white way of thinking is that we deprive ourselves of the education that comes from actually thinking through things. Once we categorize someone as “bad” no additional thought is needed. Confirmation bias ensures that we’ll ignore the good and embrace the bad in everything they do. So much so that even the most courageous and benevolent acts of someone we deem as “bad” are tossed aside. Similarly, bad acts from the people we admire are discounted as out of character and therefore carry no weight. We viewed them as “bad” once and so any subsequent goodness is tossed out. We viewed them as “good” once so any subsequent badness is tossed out. We selectively choose among the good and the bad in an effort to justify our existing opinions.
This tendency is especially pervasive in the world of politics. My side is good, the other side is evil. If you voted for him you’re good, if you voted for her you’re evil.
Here’s the point: Someone who is impressed with Dave Dahl’s business acumen, or his charity towards those with a criminal past might offer well deserved praise. They’re more willing to learn from his good and bad sides. How does someone with a negative view of him respond? They might say something like, “Yeah, but he did all of those bad things.” The implication being that applauding his virtues is wrong because Dave is an evil man. By diminishing his goodness and elevating his badness, these people are cheating themselves out of an education. Accept people as they come, and ask yourself, what can I learn from them?