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On being right July 28, 2010

Posted by mareserinitatis in engineering, science.

Growing up, my dad and I fought a lot. Usually it wasn’t about my friends or things like that, it was about politics or facts or history. Or even what time and channel a particular TV show could be found.

I never understood this because my dad was so focused on being right. Somehow, by being right, he was proving his manliness or intelligence or something. And pretty soon, I and my sisters got to be the same way. We’d argue just to be right. Family get-togethers really sucked for a while.

Thank goodness for the internet: at some point, I started Googling things as soon as he’d start an argument, or if I couldn’t, I’d just walk out in the middle of the conversation. Sometime in my 20s, I realized that the point of having conversations was to learn something, not to prove something. (About that time, I think my dad realized it, too.)

I think what got things through to me was my schooling. I would think I knew something and be SURE of it…and sure enough, someone would prove me wrong.

Being wrong is one of the best learning experiences. Not only do you educate yourself on facts, but you learn how to deal with the emotional and psychological issues that come with realizing that you can’t always be right.

I became a lot more tentative in my assertions, preferring to become not only more diplomatic but also, from my perspective, more of a researcher. I prefer to think about things, to not make an assertion unless I am not only certain, but have proof for it.

I have noticed over the past few years, however, that there are a number of people who still argue to be right. There a few people in my adult life who I have had difficulty working with, and it’s funny to me that they couldn’t be more different…except for that very strong drive to be right.

The first person was younger than I and liked to move things quickly. Being a look-before-you-leap type, this person liked to take their results and get them out the door, while I preferred to think carefully about the results before putting pen to paper. This person made assertions that often made me feel uncomfortable as some of them, in my opinion, were not rock solid. When I had tried to point out some of my discomfort with this person’s working style, it did not go well because they believe they. are. right. And this person continues to believe they are right because they are, in my opinion, a bit naive. (Of course, when there is never any backlash for stretching the limits, why would you stop doing it?) I get along with this person really well but cannot handle working with them. It’s a pity because I think our work styles are complimentary, or they would be, if this person weren’t so one-sided about things.

The second person was significantly older than I, and argued very much the same way my father did. I suspect the arguing was a way of saving face and that there is a lot of muttering about people not respecting their elders that has gone on behind my back. The problem was that this person knew their job very well, but that they were trained in a completely different area than I was. However, being older and wiser, they would try to tell me that things should work a certain way, even when it was obvious this person had no clue what they were talking about. I can’t get along with this person at all.

The third person was one who would ask my opinion or thoughts on a topic but then tell me that I was wrong. I got along with this person very well, but the realization that they were giving the impression of respect without really respecting my thoughts became very unsettling and frustrating.

The most difficult part of dealing with these people is that I had always assumed that engineers and scientists were the type of people who preferred to operate on a “proof is required” type mentality. Instead, I find that a many people I have worked with (and even some I continue to work with) are much more likely to believe in their own assertions than to say their opinion with the the qualifier that the data may not bear out what they believe to be true. It appears that they have a deep-seated need to be right more than that they want to be good engineers and scientists.



1. NJS - July 28, 2010

I run into a lot people that are more confident in their knowledge than they should be. I tend to express less confidence than I sometimes should.

I wonder how many of the over-confident people think open-mindedness is defined as being open to the fact that they are right. People are interesting.


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