All Articles Leadership Strategy The beauty of contrast

The beauty of contrast

Contrast is how we discover new ideas and move forward. Embrace the contrast between you and other people in your work and life.

4 min read


The beauty of contrast


To the poet, blue is the hue of sky and sea, the aura of twilight and haze of lost love.

To the scientist, blue is a color on the visible light spectrum with wavelengths between 450 and 495 nanometers.  

To Dave Ortega, my company’s creative director, blue is meaningless without green, red, orange, and yellow.

While the poet inspires and the scientist informs, I believe the creative director’s observation is uniquely instructive. Blue has distinct and undeniable scientific properties, but it only becomes meaningful to us in relation to other colors. If everything was blue, nothing would be.

It’s as true of our other senses as it is of sight. Without bitter, we wouldn’t know sweet. Without cold, we wouldn’t know heat. And imagine what life would be like if we could hear only one sound.

In his sweeping analysis of the historical arc of culture, “The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self,” Carl Trueman makes the point with respect to humanity in general: “Individual personal identity is not ultimately an internal monologue conducted in isolation by an individual self-consciousness. On the contrary, it is a dialog between self-conscious beings. We each know ourselves as we know other people.”

Just as we can fully appreciate one color, taste or sound only by knowing others, it’s our relationships with other people that both define and enrich us—personally, emotionally, and spiritually. And when it comes to economics, literally.

Bestselling author and economist George Gilder has repeatedly demonstrated that wealth isn’t a function of raw materials, but of know-how. The stuff from which we make things has always been there, but somewhere along the way humanity learned to put airplanes in flight and turn sand into semiconductors. The process of learning and discovery comes as a result of trial and error, accelerated by human interaction.

That’s the idea behind various innovation districts that are springing up around the country in an attempt to foster “creative collisions” between entrepreneurs and engineers, programmers and financiers. One way to describe creativity itself is the combination of previously unrelated ideas, and a great way to generate unrelated ideas is to put unrelated people in close proximity to one another.

Just as the colors on the visible light spectrum operate at different wavelengths, so do each of us, and there’s beauty in the contrast.

When I was a kid shopping for school supplies, the sight of a giant, 64-color box of Crayola crayons (with built-in sharpener) made my eyes light up. The more colors, the greater the possibilities, and the better able I would be to reflect all that my young eyes took in about the world — Forest Green, Robin Egg Blue, Dandelion Yellow, Sunset Orange and 60 other glorious possibilities. Alas, my mother thought a dozen or two was enough. (Given my artistic skills, she was probably correct, but you get the point.)

The more colors we have, the more combinations we can make. The more combinations we can make, the more creativity we can foster. And the more creativity we can foster, the more things get better in the world.

Someone once quipped, “If I didn’t have to work for people, or with people, I’d love my job.” It’s a humorous thought with which we all can identify at some level, but if my team has learned anything from 18+ months of on-again/off-again working from home it’s that there’s a tradeoff between productivity and creativity.

To some extent we can all individually be creative, but there’s nothing like sharing bad pizza or day-old doughnuts as we bounce ideas off one another in three-dimensional space and time. Eliminating a commute has its benefits, but collaboration isn’t one of them.

Embrace the varieties of tints, tastes, tones and talents around you, celebrating the contrasts that help you paint a better world. It sure beats being blue all by yourself.


Each month, When Growth Stalls examines why businesses and brands struggle and how they can overcome their obstacles and resume growth. Steve McKee is the co-founder of McKee Wallwork + Co., a marketing advisory firm that specializes in turning around stalled, stuck and stale companies. The company was recognized by Advertising Age as 2015 and 2018 as Southwest Small Agency of the Year. McKee is also the author of “When Growth Stalls” and “Power Branding.”

SmartBrief offers more than 200 free newsletters, including SmartBrief on Leadership and Business Transformation SmartBrief.