Why We Keep Trying To Be Right Even When It Is Impossible


Wednesday, 7.20pm

Sheffield, U.K.

It is not our differences that divide us. It is our inability to recognize, accept, and celebrate those differences. – Audre Lorde

It’s extremely hard to watch someone else do something differently from how you would do it and resist the urge to jump in and tell them how to do it properly – your way. If you’re competent at what you do it’s hard to watch someone else bumbling their way through a task, using the wrong approach, and the wrong method.

Of course, there isn’t really anything “wrong” about it most of the time. It’s a different problem, and one that rests with you and with me.

For example, I remember the first time another student and I worked on a maths problem and encountered the European way of using dots and commas in large numbers. For example, I would write 2 million and 2 as 2,000,000.02 while they would write it as 2.000.000,00. The “fault” lies with Leibniz but when you first encounter this it’s a shock – seeing something that runs entirely counter to your established patterns of thought – a realization that the whole world does not think the way you do.

I have learned that this happens quite a lot since then. People are different, but it’s difficult to keep that in mind. We understand some people more easily not because they make good points but because we are more familiar with their ideas. We tend to assume that people who speak with an accent also think with an accent. We believe that because something worked for us that means it will also work for someone else.

But the opposite doesn’t hold true either. Not every exotic idea or mystic utterance makes sense. Believing that past experience is no guide to the future is a good way to learn nothing. I was listening to someone talk about coaching and the idea that a coach should not contribute expertise – that’s for the client to bring to the party. And that sounded like an abdication of responsibility – surely a coach needs to know how to do something well, even if they can’t execute it themselves?

I started to critique their position and then reminded myself that there was no point – no benefit to be gained from getting riled and worked up over an idea. It’s dots and commas, in one sense.

But the other thing I remind myself is the proof that we cannot prove that one method works – that any particular way is the “right” way and that others are wrong. The proof goes something like this.

If I tell you to do something and it works for you – then how do we know that you wouldn’t have had better results doing it another way? And if you do what I say and it doesn’t work – I can very reasonably say that you must have made a mistake in the way you did it. For example, I’m very interested in visual thinking. One kind of visual thinker focuses on the “visual” bit – using their artistic skills to create stunning images of ideas and concepts. My own approach is to focus more on the “thinking” bit. For example, the sentence that starts this post is visual – you can see it. It’s legible but not beautiful.

Asking whether it’s better or worse doesn’t really help. There is no right or wrong here. What matters is whether the method is useful, whether it works for you in your situation. An approach that works for you may be one that does not work for me. But how will I know unless I am open to the idea of trying it out? If you really believe that your method is useful – that it’s better – then you should be willing to try out other methods if only to test if that is actually still the case for you once you’ve done some tests.

People get very attached to ideas and methods. I have. I like the way I do things. But we have to always remind ourselves that it’s not the method that matters, it’s whether you find it useful for the situation in which you find yourself.


Karthik Suresh

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