Being right may be wrong

In 2002, a colleague talked me into going to one of those empowerment weekend retreats for business owners. I don’t remember much about it except for sleep deprivation and freezing my butt off in the mountains of Utah.

One thing stuck with me, though (besides frostbite). About halfway through, our trainer (an ex-Marine type), said that needing to be right all the time “can cost you your job, your marriage, your family, even your life.”

I’m not sure I completely understood the concept then, but I do now. Apparently, the human ego is so strong and fragile at the same time that our identities are bound up with the need to be right. In most instances, we would rather cling to our belief systems than be happy and successful, even when those belief systems are outmoded and no longer serve their purpose.

You may remember computer science professor Randy Pausch, who delivered an inspirational and touching farewell speech to colleagues and students at Carnegie Mellon University just months before dying of pancreatic cancer. The speech, entitled “The Last Lecture: Really Achieving Your Childhood Dreams,” became a You Tube sensation and a “New York Times” best-selling book. Pausch left behind a wife and three young children. “The lecture was for my kids, but if others are finding value in it, that is wonderful,” Pausch wrote on his website. (You can view the entire presentation here.)

A compelling, bittersweet story to be sure. But in a subsequent “Time” magazine story, when asked about alternative therapies, Pausch responded, “I’ve received 10,000 e-mails—that’s a real number—many of them telling me about different remedies. But my first filter is, ‘Has it been through any kind of clinical study?’ The plural of anecdote is not data, so if you know three people that did some alternative cure, that’s positive, but it’s not the same thing as real, clinically proved data.”

I can’t fault him for making a personal choice. But if I were fighting cancer and my doctors sent me home to die and I had three small children, I’d throw the kitchen sink at it. It might not work, but I’d go down swinging. I wouldn’t be waiting for the next clinical study. That would be my personal choice.

Thankfully, the business decisions we make every day aren’t a matter of life and death. But they do impact people’s lives. Most of the time, our bedrock beliefs serve us well. But occasionally, especially during periods of economic turmoil, it’s a good idea to re-examine everything. We just might find that our need to be right is keeping us from reaching our goals.

Brian Rouff serves as managing partner for Imagine Communications.

Email Brian at

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