You can either be right, or you can be happy

On how being self aware is a bitch, why wanting to be right all the time is bad, and what that has to do with anything

The cruel irony about trying to become more self aware is that it makes you more aware of the dick moves that you’ve been making in your life until this point.

I recently started reading “The 15 Commitments of Conscious Leadership”. In it, it describes 15 principles which leaders should consciously commit to, prioritising responsibility and curiosity – the ability to be curious, rather than to be right. As I listened to the audiobook, something started feeling pretty uncomfortable. I started to dictate notes to my phone while I was driving, something I don’t often do unless what I’m listening to is really good

Paraphrased transcript of resulting conversation to sibling:

Me: “I’ve just realised, I think I often have an overwhelming urge to be right a lot. Do you get that?”
Me: “Hmm. That’s not good. Why didn’t anyone ever tell me?”
Sibling: “I think we get it from mum tbh.”*
* That line was tongue-in-cheek – my Dad was biblically stubborn, and got pretty upset when other people couldn’t see his viewpoint.

Well shit. Another one to add to my development list. It’s already got “accountability”, “discipline” and “courage” on it. I liked it better in the good old days when I was in ignorant bliss about my emotional intelligence, and had no appetite for self-improvement. Well, not really, but it was definitely easier.

Common sense aside, it’s not as if it’s the first time I’ve read about this – Adam Grant’s “Think Again” is a great example with an entire chapter dedicated to “the joy of being wrong”. The book is about how not to define yourself by your beliefs and perceptions, and to seek out alternative viewpoints. But for some reason (maybe the slight tinge of spirituality in the authors’ explanation resonated with my faith), it only took two chapters into 15 commitments to trigger another back-to-the-drawing-board moment.

My wife of course has pointed this out on many occasions, having known me for 12 years, and of course I told her she was wrong. I know that she’ll read this and help me be accountable for making change. I’m way better at managing this at work than I am at home, but one thing I’m sure of in life is that you need to be your authentic self everywhere. It’s a lot easier making a change at work if you’re in a position of privilege or authority (I definitely do not have this at home).

I should probably link this to my industry at some point. Well, possible examples where people (who may or may not be me) have reacted the wrong way when they’ve been “right”:

  • When the sales / product team sell something without talking to the engineers about how long it will take
  • When developers’ unit tests weren’t “proper” unit tests and they needed to be written again
  • When leaders’ legitimate errors were pointed out to them at face value, sometimes in front of others (the moral high ground is a very lonely one)
  • When a solution has been architected the “right” way, but the business won’t sign off on it because it’s going to take too long

And the rest. Let me know if you can think of any common ones in the tech industry!

What can we do about it?

Wanting to be right is human nature. There is nothing inherently wrong with it. The damage comes when we are defensive, threatening, or even lie to twist the argument to make it sound as though we are right. We mix so much of our identity with our beliefs and ego that we physically feel threatened if they are challenged. Greater minds than me have talked about how we can work to avoid this and the books above are a good start. I’m not a fan of recommending “self-help” books but The Four Habits That F*ck You Up is rather good and rather funny, with some guidance about replacing your “Dogmatic Demands” with “Flexible Preferences”.

We mix so much of our identity with our beliefs and ego that we physically feel threatened if they are challenged

Me? I have an app called Habitica that’s a really fun way of gamifying your habits, and you gain or lose points depending on whether you’ve performed a good or bad habit respectively (for instance, I lose 4 points now if my need to be right causes me to flip a table). Also, I reflect every week using a personal survey relating to the things I think are important right now, commenting on things like how I’ve helped people, how much discipline I’ve had, and now how I reacted in situations where my beliefs were challenged.

And of course, it’s now open season for my family to keep me accountable for being “curious”. 

“You can either be happy or you can be right” is a deliberately provocative title. It is an adage often used as a humorous observation of dynamics in a relationship, but even then I don’t think it’s either-or. There is as Grant says joy to be found in being wrong. There is a time and place to stick to your guns – when fighting political / social / racial injustice, being a good Ally, and so on. But in the interests of creating and sustaining relationships, particularly in leadership, we need to embrace the spectrum in between right and wrong, and respect that the University of Life is always trying to teach you something new.

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