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Meaning of a Different Color

By Mark Guterman and Dan King

Color wheel imageMeaning comes in all sizes, shapes, textures, and colors. We all know someone who has wrestled much of their lives with the square peg in a round hole conundrum and most of us can relate to being boxed into a corner, running in circles, being green with envy, or feeling the weight of the world on our shoulders. American Artist Georgia O’Keefe noted:

“I found I could say things with color and shapes that I couldn’t say any other way — things I had no words for.”

Much has been written about colors’ properties and meanings, beginning with Carl Jung’s stages of color psychology. Jung looked to the ancient art of alchemy to further his understanding of the secret language of color, discovering that the way people experience color is determined greatly by their own personal and cultural associations, many of which are universal. His work has historically informed the modern field of color psychology.

The general model of color psychology relies on six basic principles:

  • Color can carry specific meaning.
  • Color meaning is either based in learned meaning or biologically innate meaning.
  • The perception of a color causes evaluation automatically by the person perceiving.
  • The evaluation process forces color motivated behavior.
  • Color usually exerts its influence automatically.
  • Color meaning and effect has to do with context as well.

In our MeaningfulCareers.com model, we’re intrigued by the ways that color highlights one’s approach to meaningful work. Certain colors can convey different levels of purpose. But before we reveal how your “true colors” show, take a moment to consider the following questions:

  • What is your favorite color?
  • Has this always been so, or has your favorite changed over time?
  • What does this color evoke in you?
  • In what ways, if any, does your color relate to meaningful work?

Our first level of purpose is pragmatism and its color is green. Pragmatists see work as a means to an end. They find satisfaction in providing for those who are important to them. Earning a living is the primary motivation. Green is an obvious metaphor for money and, more recently, associated with environmental awareness. Seen in the context of meaningful work, its focus is responsibility for the physical and natural order of things.

The second level of purpose is integration and its color is orange, which is the blend of red and yellow. Integrators seek balance, either in their internal world or the outer aspects of their lives. Orange as a metaphor might be seen as the blending of light and dark, the balancing of yin and yang, or the even as a mixing of apples and oranges. Meaningful work comes from a sense of equilibrium.

Our third level of purpose is legacy and its color is blue. Those seeking to leave a legacy find meaning in the contribution to something lasting — something that will remain long after they have departed. The sky and the sea are metaphors for the vastness of their visions, their “blue sky thinking.” Their purpose is to live a life that matters, that makes a difference in the world.

The fourth level of purpose is transcendence and its color is white, which is what the human eye sees when it looks at light which contains all the colors of the visible spectrum. Transcenders seek divinity in their work — or at the very least want an ineffable presence to be a substantial part of it. We are all familiar with the metaphor of the white knight and the symbolism of wearing white during holy rituals. White in many cultures is the color of purity. At this level, meaning resides in the distillation of the spirit and the soul.

If you want to experience a stronger sense of purpose in your work, be mindful that meaning doesn’t have to be “deep.” One doesn’t need to live a utopian existence to find purpose in their work. In fact, most of us synthesize more than one level of purpose into our composite. Just as we may at times be a square peg in a round hole, we may become a full spectrum of hues, tints and shades. In the words of Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius:

“The soul becomes dyed with the color of its thoughts.”

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