Being Right is Always the Wrong Choice

It was about four or five years ago that I had an intrinsic need to be “right” all the time.

I couldn’t let it go when someone made a mistake, or slighted me, or disputed the quality / direction of my work. Everyone else was wrong. I wasn’t alone in this regard either: a number of the people around me did the same thing.

Being right

Being right made me feel superior; it made me feel better than the idiot who did that thing wrong; it made me feel moral; it made me feel righteous.

When someone made a mistake, I felt compelled to point it out – even if it meant interrupting a speaker’s presentation during a team meeting. People started spending a lot more time perfecting their talking points and PowerPoints – time that should have probably been spent on something that actually impacted the bottom line for the business.

When someone criticized my work, I deflected their criticisms or manufactured my own reasons for why their criticisms were invalid. My work is a fucking masterpiece, after all. The quality of my work didn’t improve, and I didn’t learn anything unless it was the hard way. People didn’t care about what I had to say about their work either, since they knew I didn’t listen.

I went throughout all of my work fervently believing that what I was doing was correct and righteous – there was no room for self-doubt in this guy’s super powerful brain. I made a lot of mistakes that could have been avoided, and looked the part of the arrogant idiot on a climb-down after each one.

But at least I was “right” and everyone else was wrong.

I have an assertive personality, so my need to be “right” manifested this way. You can easily substitute this with passive-aggressive behavior, which is what most “right” people do.

Being effective

My life changed early in my career when one of my mentors dropped the following bombshell on me after I had a friendly but needlessly assertive altercation with another employee:

You can choose to be right, or you can choose to be effective. It is a binary choice. You pick one, or the other. They are separate circles on the Venn diagram with zero overlap in between.

I choose “effective” every time.

There hasn’t been a day in my life since, nearly five years ago, that I haven’t said this line to myself over the course of any given day. “You can choose to be right, or be effective.” I don’t always make the correct choice, but I’m a thousand times more effective today than I was five years ago.

I stopped caring about people’s small mistakes. And if I did care, it stopped mattering to me who made the mistake or who fixed it; as long as we took care of it.

People became less afraid of sharing their ideas with me and more empowered in their roles the longer we went without the appearance of the “You’re wrong, I’m right” stick.

If someone took issue with the way I was doing something, I would break down the problem for them and ask for data-supported suggestions on how to do something better. In many cases, their criticisms were valid and we changed whatever I was doing. Other times, their suggestions were based on bad data and we didn’t implement them. We stopped taking it personally.

Gradually, everyone put their weapons down and became less worried about accepting, acknowledging, and offering criticism. People began to share their successes with each other, and everyone felt good.

I stopped worrying about if I was doing the “right” thing when it came time to take care of business – I did the best I could, owned up to any problems I created, and tried to fix them. I gave myself some room to question whether I was doing the most effective thing at any given time.

People in the office became less afraid of making a mistake and tried new things. People offered a simple “well, that didn’t work – my bad” when something went wrong, and people stopping caring if it did. We became simultaneously more productive and accountable.

Being comfortable with yourself

The contrast is drastic between the “right” period and the “effective” period. The team became a “we” once people stopped caring about being right. Everybody felt a lot better and accomplished a lot more.

Those changes pale in comparison to how my feelings about myself changed. I no longer felt superior to anyone – because I stopped needing to. All of the feelings of superiority and righteousness that come from being “right” are a façade that hide internal weakness and insecurity.

When I changed my goal from preserving my own sense of superiority to just trying to do the best I can, everything became much more impersonal and objective.

Ultimately, this shift in priorities helped me become radically more comfortable with myself. There are still things that bother me and things I feel aggrieved about, but I rarely do I think about who’s right and who’s wrong anymore. There’s simply nothing to gain by it.

I owe every thing good that’s happened to me since I graduated from college to this change in thinking. It’s empowered me to become a leader and made me much more comfortable in my own skin than I was just a few years ago.

Being “right” is a war of attrition waged by the weak against the strong; it’s designed to systemically give weaker people leverage over others by gradually instilling doubt and undermining moral authority.

Comfortable, strong people will recognize this behavior for exactly what it is: whimpering and squeaking from small people who feel like shit about themselves.

When you stop needing to play the “who’s right and who’s wrong” game, every encounter you have with a “right”-minded person makes you think “there’s a piece of work; probably not going anywhere fast.”

You can choose to be right or be effective. Being right is always the wrong choice.

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I'm the CTO and co-founder of Petabridge, where I'm making distributed programming for .NET developers easy by working on Akka.NET and Helios.

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