In Pursuit of Perfection


In Pursuit of Perfection

“Why Are We Doing This? What’s the Science Behind It?”

The last of the four colors is an interesting fellow. You’ve probably met him. He doesn’t make a fuss about himself, but he does keep tabs on what is happening around him. While a Green will just go with the flow, a Blue has all the right answers. In the background, he analyzes: classifies, evaluates, assesses.

You know you’ve met a Blue if you visit someone’s home and everything is organized in a particular way. Clear labels and names on each hook so that the children will know exactly where to hang up their jackets. Dinner menus, divided into six-week intervals to ensure a balanced diet, stuck on the refrigerator door. If you look at his tools, you’ll find that everything has its own spot and nothing is out of place. Why? A Blue DIY guy always puts things back where they belong.

He is also a pessimist, sorry: a realist. He sees errors, and he sees risks. He’s the melancholic who closes the circle of behavior. Reserved, analytical, and detail-oriented are some words you might associate with a Blue.

“Excuse Me, but That’s Not Quite Accurate.”

We all have a friend like that. Think about it: You’re sitting in a restaurant with your friends. You’re discussing cats, football, or space rockets. Someone throws out a random comment. It may be your Red friend who claims that the Patriots have been to the Super Bowl eleven times; it can be the Yellow who cheerfully claims that as a child he lived in the same block as Will Smith in West Philly.

Your Blue buddy clears his throat and in a gentle voice says that the Patriots have actually only been to the Super Bowl ten times—with their first appearance after the 1985 season and eight times since 2001—and that Will Smith actually grew up in Wynnefield, which is well north of the block in question and a half-hour walk from the lovely Centennial Arboretum. In addition, without blinking an eye, the good friend adds, “It’s interesting to note that in the Super Bowl pregame coin toss, of the past fifty-one games, the outcome has been tails twenty-seven times and heads twenty-four times. And based on past statistics, the winner of the coin toss is slightly less likely to win the game overall.”

You just have to give up, boys. This guy simply knows everything. He doesn’t make a big deal about it, but his way of presenting facts makes it difficult for you to call them into question. He knows where he found the info and can go fetch the book to prove it.

That’s the way it is with Blues. They know how things stand before they open their mouth. They’ve Googled, read the owner’s manual, and checked the dictionary—and afterwards they present a report in full.

But an important thing to note: If the question doesn’t come up, it’s unlikely that your Blue buddy will say anything on the subject. He has no need to tell everyone about what he knows. Of course, a Blue doesn’t know everything; no one can. But you can usually bank on the fact that what he says is correct.

Did you notice anything about the art above? Of course you did. This time I listed the different characteristics in alphabetical order—something a Blue would certainly appreciate. However, I might get in trouble because I don’t discuss each and every one one of these characteristics individually on the subsequent pages. To all Blue individuals who are reading this—who have probably jotted down a little note in the margin to go to my website to look for possible explanations for this blunder—I just want to say that I didn’t mean to cause any strife.

“It’s Not a Big Deal—I Was Just Doing My Job.”

How can a know-it-all be unassuming? It’s impressively modest to avoid making a fuss, even if you know everything.

It’s rare that a wholly Blue person would feel the need to stand on the rooftops or to toot his own horn in order to make it clear to the world who the real expert is. It’s usually sufficient that you, the Blue, are clear about who knows best.

There are downsides to this modesty. More than once I’ve stood in the middle of a crowd of people as we all tried to puzzle through a problem together. On one such occasion, a Blue came forward after two hours and casually pointed out the answer. For him, it was never really a problem at all. He knew a thing or two, but because Blues often miss the big picture, they don’t always act immediately. I asked him why he didn’t say anything two hours earlier. And, like a typical Blue, he said, “Well, you never asked.”

It would be easy to feel aggravated by such a comment. But at the same time, I understood him. It’s more my problem than his that he wasn’t invited to join the discussion. He knew that he knew the answer, and that was good enough.

There’s also no need to cheer, applaud, or call a Blue up to the podium when he’s done something tremendous in an amazing way. Sure, it doesn’t really do any harm to cheer. He’ll just nod, accept the praise and the prize check, and then return to his desk, where he’ll continue working on the next project. But he may well wonder what the fuss was really all about—he was only doing his job.

“Excuse Me, but Where Did You Read That? And What Edition Was It?”

A Blue can rarely get too many facts or have too many pages of fine print. People say that God is in the details, and I can imagine that it was a Blue who first said that.

No detail is too small to be noticed. Cutting corners is simply not an option for a Blue.

“Hold up,” you might say. “Not keeping track of every single tiny detail isn’t really the same thing as cutting corners.” But if you ask a Blue it is. “Not having full control is the same thing as not having any control at all. What do we get by cutting corners? How can you possibly justify it?”

It doesn’t work like that. Tell a Blue that he can ignore the details of the new contract and skip the last thirty paragraphs—there’s nothing important in that bit—and he’ll stare at you very attentively and wonder about your mental capabilities. As usual, he won’t necessarily say anything. He’ll just completely ignore what you said. He would rather burn the midnight oil checking all the facts of the case than miss the slightest detail.

A few years ago, I tried to sell a leadership program to the CEO of a company in the packaging industry. He was Blue; there was no doubting that. His emails were long-winded and a little dry, and for our first meeting he had set aside fifty minutes. Not an hour, not three-quarters of an hour, but fifty minutes. (There was a reason for this: After the meeting he would have lunch, and the dining room was eight minutes away. Plus a visit to the gents for about two minutes. A fifty-minute meeting would get him there right in time.)

The first time we met, he deposited me in a specific chair by a specific corner at the visitors’ desk. He didn’t ask if I had any difficulty getting there—which I did; the address was totally impossible—he offered neither coffee nor tea. He didn’t smile when he greeted me. He examined my business card very carefully.

After going through the company’s needs, I explained that I would go back to my office to put a quote together. Once back at my desk, I brooded about how I should go about it. Normally, my proposals were ten to twelve pages long, but I knew that wouldn’t be sufficient in this case. Instead, I put my nose to the grindstone and wrote over thirty-five pages.

I mailed a hard copy of the quote to him, since for a Blue the written and printed word means much more than the spoken—or digital. After a week or so, I followed the whole thing up with a phone call. They were interesting ideas, the CEO said, but he was ready to go further. Could he now get the full quote? What he actually said was:


I remember scratching my head. In my opinion, I had described the program rather well in the proposal. Each stage had an agenda, a clear goal, and a defined purpose. I’d given some background information, references, and citations.

As a seller, you can’t give up, so I was back at it, adding every detail I could think of. The second time, I put together at least eighty-five pages: each item broken down into two-hour intervals, even more background, sample exercises, analysis tools, templates, the works. Details on a level that would have made a Yellow throw up.

Pleased with myself, I sent over the whole caboodle.

It took several weeks before I heard from the CEO. I asked if he was ready to make a decision and he asked:


Well, this time he wanted to come to my office. For ninety minutes, we sat on the same side of the table in the conference room at my office and went through … the table of contents in the proposal. He had drawn up the general terms and conditions (read: the fine print) on legal paper, and each section was full of questions and notes. Afterwards, he said with a totally expressionless face that it was the best meeting he had been at for a long time. But what he really wondered was:


I sent him off and sat down for a while and pondered. More material? No problem. I shared the whole training folder (this was before e-learning and virtual classrooms), at least three hundred pages covering every fifteen-minute session during the fifteen days of training in five different stages of leadership.

This was all the material there was, even with information about when coffee breaks should be slotted in, exactly what questions should be asked of the individuals during training, how the room should be furnished, the works. I can certify—there were no gaps.

I thought that if I took all this and rammed it down his throat he would be satisfied at last.

After a month, he asked if there was any more material.

There was not.

A common misconception is that Blues are unable to make decisions, but that’s not the case. It wasn’t that this CEO was pushing the decision into sometime in the future or that he couldn’t decide. He simply had no need to decide. For him, the process leading up to the decision was significantly more interesting. And he just wondered if there was any more material.

Why Some People Have to Sleep on Things for So Long You Wonder If They’ve Gone into Hibernation ?

The preceding example also illustrates another important characteristic Blue behavior. They’re generally very cautious. They often think safety first. Where a Red or Yellow would take a wild chance, a Blue will hold off and consider everything one more time. There may be more factors to take into account, right? You need to get to the bottom of things before you act.

This can manifest itself in various ways. It’s a fact that for the Blue, the trip is more important than the destination, exactly the opposite of a Red. Obviously, this amount of caution can result in no decisions being made at all, and it also means that Blues rarely take any major risks. Never taking any risks ensures a predictable life; we can probably agree on that. I’m not saying anything about how exciting and inspiring it would be; I’m just stating the facts.

Sometimes a Blue can even completely refrain from starting something because he can’t assess the risks. I once met a Blue seller who had trained as an engineer. His motto was that the best deal is often the one you didn’t make. Risk assessment is a complex thing, and who knows what dangers are lurking out there? A Blue generally solves everything by creating advanced systems that manage the possible risks that may arise. They set three alarm clocks. They leave two hours early when one would be enough. They check and recheck the children’s backpacks before school in the morning, even though they packed them the night before and no one has touched the backpacks during the night. They triple-check that the keys are in their pocket and, of course, they are. Where else would they be?

The benefits of this are evident. Blues won’t be taken aback by unexpected events in the same way others would be. And in the long run, they save a lot of time.

“It Doesn’t Matter If It’s Easier. It’s Still Not Right.”

Things can’t be allowed to go wrong. That’s all there is to it. Quality is all that matters. When a Blue individual thinks his work runs the risk of being shoddy or low quality, things come to a standstill. Everything must be checked out. Why has the quality declined?

Running the risk of generalizing, I would say that a fair number of engineers have distinct Blue traits. Accurate, systematic, fact oriented, and quality conscious. I can’t know for certain, but I would imagine that Toyota, the Japanese car manufacturer, probably has a good proportion of Blue engineers among its employees. They have a policy that you must always ask “why” five times to ensure quality and get to the heart of the issue. I would say that this is a typical Blue approach (in addition to the Japanese mentality, which is very long term and rather Blue in expression).

So let’s say someone discovers an oil stain on the floor. A Red approach might be to lambast the person closest to him and then order him to mop up the stain. A Yellow sees the stain and then forgets it but two days later is surprised when he slips on it. The Green also sees the stain and feels a little bit of guilt because it poses a problem and everyone is ignoring it.

A Blue would ask, “Why is there an oil spill?” The answer may be that a gasket is leaking. This answer, of course, is unsatisfactory for a Blue. “Why is the gasket leaking?” “Because it’s poor quality.” “Why do we have poor-quality gaskets in our factory?” “Because the purchasing department was told to save money. We bought cheap gaskets instead of tight-sealed gaskets.” “But who asked us to save money and compromise on quality?” This is the way he goes on. Maybe the problem will resolve itself. Maybe we’ll get a report of what went wrong, but nothing is done to fix the problem.

In the end, the Blue solution might be to review our purchasing strategies instead of just mopping up the oil on the floor.

My point is this: A Blue is prepared to dive deep to get everything exactly 100 percent correct.

Blues argue that if they’re going to do something, they must do it correctly. And vice versa—if a task isn’t worth being done properly, then it’s not worth doing at all. Furthermore, because Blues usually find it difficult to lie, they will always point out the defects they uncover—even defects that may reflect poorly on them.

I clearly remember discussions my parents had when I was a child. We moved from time to time, and usually our house had to be sold, with everything that entailed. Dad—the engineer—would, of course, do all the work himself, and he managed the viewings personally.

My mum was always upset that he began each viewing by pointing out all the flaws and shortcomings of the house. It leaked here and there, and some paint had flaked off behind the sofa. “Why are you telling them that?” my mother wondered. “Because this and that is wrong,” Dad replied. “Sure, but do you have to tell that to the prospective buyers? Now they may never want to buy the house!”

He didn’t understand the problem. As a very honorable and honest person, he couldn’t hide the faults he knew were there. He could live with the fact that we rarely made a huge profit on those deals. He’d been honest about the house, because that’s how it should be done.

“If the Trail Doesn’t Match the Map, There’s Something Wrong with the Trail.”

Logical and rational thinking is critical to a Blue. Out with all the feelings (as much as possible) and in with logic. Of course, Blues can’t turn off their feelings completely—no one can—but they like to say they use rational arguments when making decisions. They value logical thinking highly, but they can very easily become depressed when things don’t go their way. And depression has nothing to do with logic and everything to do with feelings.

Few people can repeat the same task an infinite number of times in exactly the same way like Blues can. They have a unique ability to precisely follow instructions to the letter without questioning, provided they understood and approved of it in the beginning.

How do they do this without getting bored or careless? Well, it’s logical. If a particular method works, why change it? While a Yellow or Red would find new ways of doing something simply because they were bored, a Blue repeats the same thing time and time again.

Consider how a Blue would put together a piece of furniture from IKEA. If there’s a manual, then of course you have to read it thoroughly before you start. Reds, confident that they can easily do this, start screwing and putting together the various parts without even looking to see what’s in the rest of the box. Yellows tear up everything, exclaiming that it’s going to be great fun to get the furniture in place. They live in the future and can already see a clear picture of the new cabinet on the right wall of the bedroom with Grandma’s tablecloth and a lovely vase of tulips on it. They put each part together a little bit haphazardly, without much effort. They’ll screw in a few screws where it looks logical only to skip to another part of the cabinet. A Green DIY guy leans the enormous box against the wall and has a coffee break. There really isn’t a hurry.

What does a Blue do? He reads the instructions twice, examines what everything looks like, and confirms that the different pieces of the new cabinet match the pictures in the instructions. With a slightly damp—not too wet—cloth, he carefully wipes down all the different parts because they are likely to be dusty. He tallies the number of screws in the box so that he will not be surprised at the end if anything is missing (and if there are any parts left over, he may very well take the whole thing apart again).

It may take a little extra time for a Blue to put together his cabinet, but once it’s done, you can be sure that it will stand forever.

“The Devil Is in the Details.”

A few years ago, I wanted to renovate the patio in my yard. Because I like working with my hands, in contrast to just talking each day, I thought I would do the job myself. Or at least part of it. My dad, well over seventy at the time, was going to help out because he knew that I was pressed for time.

Easier said than done. To provide a sturdy foundation, we were going to lay down gravel. Dad arrived a few moments before the dump truck with all the gravel. He had his own wheelbarrow with him, specially designed to maneuver gravel, and a special shovel that he always used for similar purposes. He didn’t understand why I was standing there with my regular shovel. Everyone knew that you had to use special shovels for things like this.

The truck came and dropped a hefty pile of gravel in the drive way. I imagined a few days of shoveling before me, and to be honest, it made me feel a little tired. But I was still ready to take on the challenge.

My old dad? He picked up a bit of gravel between his fingers, smelled it, felt it, and assessed its quality. After grunting somewhat, which I interpreted as approval, he began to assess the pile itself.

He measured the height of the mound with his hand; he paced how large the circumference was. I asked him what he was doing. He didn’t answer but mumbled numbers under his breath.

“One and eighty high, five meters in circumference, gradient … hmm … “After thirty seconds, he said that there were between 8.75 and 9.25 cubic meters of gravel in the driveway. I confided to him that it was actually nine cubic meters. Exactly.

Dad asked rather skeptically how I knew that. I pointed. “It’s written on the truck,” I said.

Dad was mildly impressed. I asked if he wanted to count each piece of gravel individually. He didn’t deem that to be necessary.

For hours, he walked around the site and packed and pressed, raked the gravel, smoothing everything until he thought that everything was in order. He used a level, plumb line, water, all the means at his disposal, so that nothing would go wrong.

The gravel needed to be laid at an incline of exactly one centimeter per meter. Why, you ask? “It says so in the book.” Because he was a construction engineer, he knew the book by heart. One centimeter per meter. Exactly. Who knows what terrible consequences could result if you were careless about that?

Consider the difference between one centimeter and roughly one centimeter. The former is precise; the latter is imprecise. Roughly one centimeter—it could be up two centimeters if things went bad. From a one-centimeter to a two-centimeter gradient—that’s a difference of no less than 100 percent, a huge deviation!

(The funny thing about this story is not really the event itself, but what happened when Dad read about it in the first edition of this book. He argued that that’s not how it really happened. He corrected the story on several points and claimed that the truck had held twelve cubic meters—not nine. He also insists that he’s not purely Blue, and there might just be something in that.)

He’s like that with everything. At home, if there are any technical questions about a television, a car, a microwave oven, or a cell phone, out comes the manual. He always replies, “It says here that… Why do you think they wrote this stuff if it’s not meant to be done that way?”

How do you reply to that? How do you argue with the instruction manual? It’s impossible to find arguments that a true Blue will accept. (My dad will also stop at a red light in the middle of the night, even if he is the only one within a ten-mile radius. Because that’s the way you do it.) The great value of this approach is obvious. He will never be fooled; he will always get what he paid for. It gives him an inner peace because he knows he has checked everything out very accurately.

If you know any Blues, I am sure you will agree with me. Under normal circumstances, they’re very calm and balanced. Probably because they keep tabs on everything.

“Silence Is Golden.”

Introvert. Enough said. I could stop there. Many Blues I’ve met don’t say a single word unnecessarily. That’s just the way it is. Does that mean they have nothing to say? Don’t they have opinions about things? Not at all, they are just very, very introverted. Blues are the calm, stable individuals the Aztecs equated with the sea, the element of water.

Quiet on the outside, but under the surface anything could be hap pening. “Introverted” doesn’t mean silent; it means active in the inner world. But the effect of this is often quiet.

In general, my advice is to listen attentively when Blues do actually talk, because they’ve usually thought through what they say.

So why are they so silent? Among other things, it’s because they, unlike Yellows, don’t feel the need to be heard. Sitting in a corner and not being seen or heard makes no difference to them. They are observers, spectators, more than central characters. They can find themselves at the edge of a group where they observe and record everything that is said.

And don’t forget this: According to a Blue’s values, being silent is something positive. If you have nothing to say—keep quiet.

Conclusions on Blue Behavior

Do you know everything about Blues? Have you identified some Blues in your life? Bill Gates and Albert Einstein both used their attention to detail and meticulous nature to build their success. We also have Sandra Day O’Connor and Condoleezza Rice. And of course, from the fictional world, Mr. Spock from Star Trek is the perfect Blue—all logic, rationality, and intellect, even if a few of the jokes slip past him.


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