Friday, February 24, 2012

being right is irrelevant

I have been fiddling with this idea for nearly three months now. I know this because of the date on the draft version of this entry. Seeing Jack's entry on what he learned while working at LinkedIn reminded me I had this post that needed to be finished. Of course, it's been more than a month since that entry but I was on days off then busy at work and now we're finally here.

Before I go any further, if you took the time to read Jack's post, you might be wondering how I'm connecting his ideas with the idea of rightness being irrelevant. He certainly doesn't say that being right is irrelevant, nor was that the point of his entry. However, very briefly, his points on influence winning and relationships mattering are aspects of my own on the irrelevancy of being right. The connections, if not clear, will become so by the end of this post. For now, a brief detour.

I was good at school. I am a generally sharp guy (despite the many grammatical errors in my posts and my absurd use of parentheses), interested in learning, and an unusually good test taker. For many years I thrived on being right because that's what correlated with success in school. As a young child, answers are almost always either right or wrong. It's not so much about interpretation and justification. Facts are facts and that's how it works. It is particularly true in math and science where right and wrong are very cut and dry. Along with needing to be right, I also hated being wrong. Wrong answers meant a failure, maybe not in a grade sense, but in the stark contrast of rightness and wrongness, being wrong was a failure. In that miniature world of school, I was an excellent student. Within those confines, that's how and why rightness came to mean much to me.

My story is hardly unique and in fact probably rather pedestrian. When you are very young, right and wrong hold a lot of meaning. However, we do not remain children forever nor do we get to sty in school, at least one of clear cut facts, forever either. It still matters to me to be "right" but I have come to realize how limited the utility of rightness actually is in this world. On it's own, rightness will get you nowhere.

I am not pitching some moral relativism where all truths about the world are up for grabs (though that is arguably in play), but I am saying that the stark world of right and wrong that exists when you are a child must fade away as an adult. The "real" world is not about rightness and wrongness. It is about what you can convince people of and that is often how right and wrong end up being defined. In this way, it is about how you can influence people and how you can forge and build relationships with people/groups/super PACS/etc to convince others that you are "right". Your rightness might be political and how you are the best candidate or why someone should invest in your company or why someone should buy your product or why the jury should find you not guilty on all counts. Regardless of the issue, it's not about whether you are "right" or not in a truthful and objective sense because without context that term means nothing. It is about whether you can convince the requisite number of people that you are worth agreeing with.

Need an example? We can reach into something incredibly topical that is surprisingly not about the Republican primary, or at least not directly about the primary. The Utah state House has passed a bill that would prohibit schools that teach sex education from teaching about contraception. I'd like to think that the following is not how this bill came to be viewed as a good idea:
Legislator #1: "How can we stop kids from having sex?"
Legislator #2: "Hold on, I've got an idea. We'll tell them ... not to."
Legislator #1: "Brilliant! This can't possibly fail (you know, because it worked so well in Texas)."

Sigh. This is obviously a hot-button topic and politically loaded so it is perhaps odd to use as an example of the irrelevancy of rightness. Still, I will soldier ahead because in theory legislation has purpose. I assume the purpose of this legislation is to reduce teen sex, teen pregnancy, and the spread of STDs. Of course, it doubles as an attempt to promote a certain type of moral agenda and I won't pretend to be unaware of that fact. That secondary purpose is fine in a sense, because the primary goal should be the reduction in teen pregnancy and STDs and the general improvement in public health. Of course, they really should look to Texas to see if abstinence-only sex education is effective at improving public health. It is not. As much as there is a "right" answer from a public policy perspective, it is clear that abstinence-only sex ed is not the most effective course. However, that rightness is not relevant to the advancement of the bill as it gets closer to being law. The issues and the facts and the actual answers have been subverted and the issue is now one of morality instead of sound public policy. Influence won out over being right.

If you want an example that is not politically charged, take a look at the idea that being in the cold or out in the rain can cause you to become sick. This is on my mind since I have had this discussion twice this week. I find it oddly curious that I need to explain to otherwise educated people how the common cold or flu is caused by a virus and not some reaction to being in cold weather or having wet hair. I feel like this is basic science and the right and wrong answers are very clear cut. (I am aware that enough exposure to the cold can reduce your body's temperature and thus weaken your immune system, but that is not the point under debate.) However, as basic as it is, my "rightness" on this topic take a back seat to the sources people muck-up correlation and causation and are more willing to be believe the words of their mothers than my own. I have to win people over and influence them not with the blunt facts and railing about their ignorance, but instead with building up a relationship and trust. Can my influence and persuasion win out? Sometimes yes, sometimes no. But the facts alone and being "right" by itself are never enough.

I do not celebrate this irrelevancy of rightness. In fact, it is quite frustrating and disappointing to see so many false facts promulgated in society, media, culture, etc. Truth should not be marginalized, but people do not necessarily believe facts simply because they are true. People more often believe facts that fit with their world view, life philosophy, religion, or whatever set of beliefs they claim to be important to them. Packaging helps too and successfully influencing people often depends as much on style as it does on substance. In this way, being right is irrelevant if you cannot find a way to educate people and win them over, but if you have no relationship with them, they have little reason to listen. And if they will not listen, you cannot influence them.

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