Over the course of my career as an art and creative director and later as a product experience designer, I kept a secret for a long time: I am colorblind.
I can see colors. I just happen to have difficulty telling the difference between shades of color in the same tonal range. In other words, some greens and browns are indistinguishable to me. Same with blues and purples.
Ever since I admitted this publicly a couple of years ago, many people wondered how I could find success in a field that is so dependent on one’s use of color. Truthfully, I wondered about that myself for a long time. Recently, with the help of the positive psychologist, Robert Mack, I learned that the key to my success all along has been practicing intentional happiness.
Just as someone can have a yoga or meditation practice, you set an intention and you do it with some frequency. Even those at a master level must work to maintain their skills. I have not mastered happiness, but I intentionally work to cultivate it. To put it in Mack’s words, I am continually training my emotional guidance system to shift focus to the positive.
There are science-backed things you can do to be happier, as author Eric Barker documents. And the pursuit of happiness has become its own business. There is no shortage of studies on happiness, global rankings for the happiest country, even lists of companies that have the happiest employees.
Corporations are starting to put value in it as many organizations are dedicating resources towards well-being. (The concepts of “happiness” and “subjective well-being” are often used interchangeably). Leaders want happy people on their teams because research indicates that happy people are more productive and more satisfied in their jobs.
None of this suggests that we should try to be happy all the time. It’s unrealistic to think that we ought to all be walking around blissed-out all of the time. Leaders shouldn’t expect that their teams will either.
Rather, it helps to remember what Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh has said, “There is no way to happiness—happiness is the way.” Decades of scientific studies bear this out, revealing that happiness precedes success. My professional journey mirrors these findings as I navigated an impediment that could have ended my career but instead served to strengthen my resilience and make me a better leader. For me, practicing intentional happiness is liberating in that I can be aware of—but less concerned with—what might hold me back. And instead, I can focus on what strengthens me and brings joy.
You don’t need to be colorblind to see that these lessons could apply in any situation right now.
Optimize for resilience
For many years, I powered through what I learned to refer to as imposter syndrome. It started when, as a boy, I was cruising timber with my dad and couldn’t distinguish the red and orange ribbons in the trees. It continued on through art school where I picked paint colors by the labels on the tubes, and then, professionally when working with clients I used swatch books and computer software to match colors.
Along the way, I accepted the idea that I might not succeed at something, and might even downright fail. But not in a hopeless, hapless sort of way. Over the years, a thousand small defeats or near-losses have helped me see this and that I would survive. That I’d be able to create, compete, and continue trying. That I’d learn and hopefully get better as I go.
This exercise in resilience—a key component of happiness—allowed me to feel a reduced pressure to achieve, and perhaps less of a need to compare myself with others. Imposter syndrome, fear of failure, and the social and economic pressures to perform are a part of human nature. But optimizing for the well-being and happiness of individuals on your team will allow them to navigate it.
For example, in a culture of back-to-back meetings, the importance of detachment breaks cannot be overstated. Even amidst demands for high productivity, good leaders know to make space for their team to drop out/turn off when necessary.
Optimize for the strength of others
Color is rarely listed as one of the top principles of design. There are other more pressing concerns such as Hierarchy, Scale, Balance, and Framing. Fortunately, I’ve always had a knack for these things.
But as a colorblind artist, I learned early to put trust in people. Trust in their talent, skills, and perspective. The designers that I hired and collaborated with have been another key factor in my success. Though I’ve never hired a designer just for their ability to see and specify colors, I looked for strengths that supported where I or others had weaknesses. I am pleased to admit that nothing I’ve accomplished has been done on my own. It’s always in collaboration with others.
The science of well-being tells us that happier people are more apt to collaborate and play well with others. And it also works the other way—teamwork and collaboration can lead to improved happiness.
It is entirely possible to come up with ideas on your own. But the speed at which ideas are generated and the synapses fire are multiplied when even a couple of people work together. There is also a boost in morale that comes from communal success. And if we fail, we’ll have each other to lean on. Or in my case, if my ability to see color fails, then someone else can pick up that ball and run with it.
One of the most valuable skills leaders can have is the self-awareness to acknowledge their weaknesses. Considering strengths and weaknesses across the team and the organization can set everyone up with the opportunity to do their very best.
There are quite a few tools such as Gallup’s CliftonStrengths Finder for figuring this out. But it’s also perfectly fine to simply start a conversation to discover where one person’s strengths might compliment others’ weaknesses, but also give each party the ownership—or agency—over that strength.
Optimize for fun
One of my favorite art teachers would occasionally rip or cut a piece of your work out and paste it somewhere else. It was a destructive form of criticism (admittedly kind of aggressive and off-putting to some of the other students) that quickly helped me see that there is more than one way to look at a piece of work. It encouraged me to do more experimenting. To play with the work itself—taking things apart and then putting them back together in different configurations.
That kind of experimenting can often lead to innovation. Brendan Boyle, founder of IDEO’s Play Lab has become known for his philosophy of “Flirting with the ridiculous.” Sometimes, just throwing a bit of play-doh down on a table and encouraging the team to make whatever comes to mind while you make small talk can be incredibly fulfilling—and happy.
In my practice as a leader, I have always made it a point to get the team out and away from their desks. We’ve taken maker classes, like going to an artist’s studio to make collages together.
In the era of Zoom calls and hybrid work, it is still just as important—and quite possible—to make space for play.
It does take some planning and structure. You can’t just get on a video call for 30 minutes and just see what comes out of it. In my previous role at a major financial institution, I was part of a geographically distributed team tasked with creating a vision for part of a new and improved customer experience. We quickly figured out a way to work on video that was equitable, inclusive, and involved a fair amount of play.
- We took turns leading the meeting each day which ended up being as playful and refreshing as it was democratic.
- For structure, we bookended with a story (in this case a user starts with a hurdle or obstacle to overcome and ends with a goal achieved).
- Each participant was given 15 minutes to sketch what happened in between those bookends. With words, images, stick figures, etc.
- We each worked in silence for a given amount of time, but with our cameras on so that we could ask questions and share inspirations as we moved forward.
- Each of us then took turns sharing our solution—each taking five minutes to walk the rest of the group through their story or scenario.
- This storytelling allowed space for others to chime in, ask questions, and otherwise build on the story.
- Just as I had learned from my art teacher years ago, we pieced together one complete story from all of the inputs. More diverse in its detail and more colorful than anything any one of us could have done on our own.
This sort of purpose-driven play isn’t limited by one’s technical ability to see color not. Play is exploration and discovery. It’s being able to experiment with different ways of working in a way that allows for space to fail. As Martin Buber has said, “Play is the exaltation of the possible.” It leads to a collective vision. Something all of the players can own.
I overcame colorblindness by learning how to experiment, innovate, and not be afraid to fail. These lessons became core tenets of intentionally cultivating happiness. This, in turn, helped me overcome a deficit like colorblindness and the impostor syndrome that grew out of it. I now use it to work in the service of leadership and collaboration. So don’t wait to cultivate the happiness within you. And encourage the same in your teammates. Your career, your colleagues, and the world will be better for it.
Klaus Heesch is head of Optimism & Sustainable Growth, an Experience Design leader, speaker, and happiness practitioner.