The unimportance of being right (growing up in a colorblind family)

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At some point in our lives we each have felt surrounded by people who see the world incorrectly. Sometimes it’s the accountant who works for a management team that doesn’t understand numbers. Or it’s the artist who works for a marketing team that doesn’t understand font. Sometimes we feel so certain that we are right and they are wrong that we think we need to leave.

The key to getting along with other people is to keep your eye on what really matters and let the rest go. This is the attitude that conveys poise and self-confidence in work life. And this is the way you will learn to stop caring who is right and who is wrong.

I learned this lesson early because my three brothers and my mother are colorblind. My mom and brothers see color, but they don’t see it how the rest of the world sees it. If you say, “What color is this?” and point to something, sometimes they’ll get it right and sometimes they won’t. I could say, “It’s blue, not green.” But they don’t care. Sometimes they just shrug. Or say, “Well, maybe to you, but not to us.”

There’s not much I can do when they are the majority. So I became philosophical about who is right. I realized that in most cases it doesn’t matter that I’m right and they’re wrong. So we called the family car purple, even though I knew it wasn’t.

But sometimes capitulating is not an option – for example if someone is breaking the law, or if someone is making you truly unable to do your job. But usually, in the case of ignorance, there is a way to compromise.

Once I was driving with my brother and discovered that none of my colorblind family members can see the green light. They depend on seeing if the red or yellow light is on.

I had a fit.

He said that it didn’t matter. He pointed out that my mom hasn’t seen a green light in forty years of driving.

Of course, I am right, that driving like this is a hazard. But ultimately, my family will continue to drive. And ultimately, it is an issue for the department of transportation (who I hope reads this because 10% of the population is colorblind). I would gain very little by insisting that I am right. So I concentrated on saving my life and reported the color of lights for the rest of the trip.

Many of you find yourselves surrounded by people who are, in effect, colorblind; They don’t know what they’re looking at and don’t care. Instead of insisting that these people admit they are wrong, let them think what they want while you keep your eye on the parts of your job that matter long-term.

Meanwhile, to quell your urge to be rude or mean, remember that few people are stupid in every category. So keep good relations with the chronically ignorant because they could prove useful at a later point.

I find that the most annoying part of being surrounded by the colorblind is that I’m right and there’s no one to acknowledge that I’m right. And that goes back to the fact that the best people to work are poised and self-confident. In most cases one’s own insecurity rather than brilliance makes one feels alienated by stupidity.

In search of poise and perspective in my career, I have tried to focus on myself and the smart people around me, and that has made me feel smarter and happier in my work.

16 replies
  1. Joey Roth
    Joey Roth says:

    This is especially true when doing creative work for clients, verses working on your own projects. I’m doing freelance industrial design to pay the bills until my teapot launches this Fall; some clients are wonderful, some less so, but I’m seeing more and more that my job is to basically make them happy. This doesn’t mean agreeing with everything they say; it means being strategic with my suggestions, and as you said, “letting the rest go”.

  2. Chuck Westbrook
    Chuck Westbrook says:

    I had a great meeting yesterday with a mentor where this was a main point of emphasis. In building a team, focus on the outcome, not the process. It doesn’t matter if they acknowledge that you are right or not–what matters is that the goal gets accomplished. So focus on yourself and focus on the goal. You’re probably not going to change anyone’s personality.

  3. Vee
    Vee says:

    “Once I was driving with my brother and discovered that none of my colorblind family members can see the green light.”

    Uh not really. I’ve worked in railway construction (where red and green lights are used to control trains at speeds) and driven on similar roads to you (with that 10%) and I don’t agree that these people are dangerous or that they can’t see. The point here is that they do the same job differently – in my experience, colour blind people adapt to accommodate their differences. They work out where lights are positioned, or use other information, to decide where to drive. Painting them as dangerous drivers we need to watch is a little patronising.

    Similarly, people who are dyslexic can develop techniques to deal with numbers accurately in their jobs. Let’s not lump either group with the “chronically ignorant” just because they’re different.

  4. Elizabeth
    Elizabeth says:

    Oh, I can relate.

    My sons are colorblind, and, my husband is in colorblind denial.

    But, you’re right they don’t need my advice, they have or will work it out.

  5. karry
    karry says:

    Um, Penelope? Green is always on the bottom or the right in the USA.

    * * * * * *

    In California, and surely in other places in the country as well, some highways have single-light intersections — one single light turns all three colors.


  6. Dale
    Dale says:

    The most important message I receive from this post is that despite the fact that I may differ from others in significant or minor ways, I need to focus on the task rather than points of contention that make for disagreement. This advice is excellent when the disputed “point/s” is/are innocuous, or when one in inevitably bound to the situation or “those” people. But as with everything, for some of us, the answer to this situation depends upon where it exists on the continuum of extremity. For example, I can agree to disagree with someone who holds divergent political views, but when the issue is of greater personal or other import, I think that things do become dire. In my youth I saw a manager verbally abuse a fellow employee for a simple infraction – not showing a wine bottle to a newly seated table, in a restaurant where we served.
    The situation did not involve me, but as someone who had been verbally abused all my life before that incident, I could/would not let it pass. Consequently I did “things” to show my disgust, and rebel, knowing that I would not be penalized as I was considered too valuable to lose – I worked like a sled-dog on steroids:).
    This simple example shows that as with all things, one’s response to a situation is often dependent upon the perceived magnitude of the situation. And when we are personally vested in that circumstance, our perception/objectivity becomes somewhat suspect. Just my thoughts.

  7. Phil
    Phil says:

    Great insight. As it applies to my particular situation, I work for a non-profit organization fighting for improvements in the low-income neighborhoods of our city. Our goal is to build a powerful organization that empowers neighborhood residents to advocate for themselves. As such, it really doesn’t matter what issue we work on or even what tactics we use. The process of building the organization is what is important.

    Still, it is often difficult to avoid arguments over strategy. As an organizer, I need to learn to let go of preconceptions of right and wrong and focus instead on what will help residents become more active.


  8. laurence haughton
    laurence haughton says:

    Great advice, “keep your eye on what really matters and let the rest go.”

    I found myself so focused on how right I was and how wrong others were that I often closed my eyes to any evidence that didn’t reinforce my feelings of being right. I learned later that my inability to hear or see any “disconfirming” evidence made me less effective as a business writer and leader.
    Letting go has helped me.

    BTW I think they also vary the intensity of red, green, and yellow traffic lights to help the colorblind distinguish the signal.

  9. Caitlin
    Caitlin says:

    Wow, it's really unusual for a woman to be colour blind. It means your mum must have inherited a faulty X chromosome from both her parents. The X chromosome is the one that carries colour blindness and also many other genetic conditions such as haemophilia. Usually in a woman the other X chromosome will be fine and the body will use the genetic coding of the healthy X chromosome so the colour blindness will not manifest. Whereas in a man, he has one X chromosome and one Y chromosome and since the Y chromosome is shorter, there is no corresponding healthy genetic material for the body to use. I am sure you already know this but there is a very strong possibility that you are a carrier, so you would be wise to make sure your children are tested. (I think I'm remembering my high school biology correctly but if there are any geneticists or actual scientists out there, feel free to correct me if I've got this wrong.)

    I think most people with colour blindness can manage it just fine though I do actually know someone who refuses to drive a car because he believes his colour-blindness would make it dangerous. That's not really an option in most places in the US but it is in Sydney, Australia, where he lives. I never heard of traffic lights that have just the one globe to turn three colours though – that *does* sound dangerous! But I think it's the traffic lights that should be changed, not the licensing of colour-blind drivers.

    I have to admit that the number one thing I can't stand is when I know I'm right and other people are wrong and they just can't accept it. When I was 15 or so I used to get upset about anything – for example if somebody was insisting that Toronto was the capital of Canada and I knew it was Ottawa, or if someone wouldn't accept that a tomato was really a fruit in a biological sense.

    One of the hardest things in life has been learning to manage that. I'm a lot more wise to baiting and I might engage in banter or debate but will try not to take it seriously. I can still get upset if it's something I really care about though – I get wound up over certain issues like the environment. Someone once said to me that “what’s right is not always what’s best” and that’s so true.

  10. Michelle
    Michelle says:

    A very enjoyable antidote, using family problems to highlight business ones. To add on to what you said, much of business (or all?) is not based on rightness but on positive interaction. Even though I’m receiving better grades at my state university (which has comparable business programs) than some of my peers at a private university, they have more opportunities to network and thus the rightness of my better grades lose value. While I may have an urge to tell off others, I just ask “Is my making them aware helpful to the situation?”

  11. Neil Fitzgerald
    Neil Fitzgerald says:

    In the UK, the green light contains blue so that it is easier to see for colour blind people. Non colour blind people only see it as green though.

  12. Andrey
    Andrey says:

    I like the writing!
    First of all, it doesnt’ matter how people see the world around, you’re right. What matters is the consequences, and if they are not gloomy or harmfulm there is no need to insist you are right.
    On the other hand, sometimes it helps us know something that other people see in a different way. It can be an eye-opening experience, I would say.
    At last, we ourselves sometimes can be a ‘color-blinded’.
    And there is no need to be unhappy or make unhappy people surrounding us. This part is well explained at – today’s post.

  13. Suze
    Suze says:

    Interesting and timely for me. I have been training myself to BACK OFF of people for the past couple of months, particularly those whose driving habits annoy me. I had an “a ha!” moment where I realized that I make just as many driving errors as anyone else and if I don’t want to be judged by the worst things I do, why am I judging others that way?

    You know what? I’m a lot happier and more tranquil.

    * * * * *

    Thanks for sharing this, Suze. This is a great example of how self-knowledge comes, I think. How we get small insights into ourselves  and they just keep adding up, over time, as long as we’re open to seeing them.


  14. Dave
    Dave says:

    I don’t have time to debate the rightness of being right, but I wanted to note that color blindness does not necessarily mean people cannot see colors! I am red green color blind and when I tell people this, I get the usual questions about how do I drive, etc. Only a small fraction of people have that problem. For most color blind people, it is a question of degree. If I wash a load of whites with a red sock, I might not notice that the whites come out a little pink. But I can tell the sock is red. And that dark green turtleneck looked black to me in the closet this morning…but in the bright sun…oops!

  15. LaDawn
    LaDawn says:

    People who are arguing about colour blindness in the comments are missing the point of the post which is somewhat ironic because that is the point of the post.

    It is more important to be happy not right.

Comments are closed.