Sam Holstein

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How Your Obsession With Being Right Keeps You From Being Happy

I used to think about the world in terms of “true” and “false.” When people made statements, such as “God exists” and “You shouldn’t have an affair with someone who’s already married,” I had a strong reflexive emotional reaction based on whether I considered the statement true or not.

This sounds immature when you lay it out that way, but at an emotional level, that’s how most of us proceed through life. That’s probably how you proceed through life.

  • When our spouse doesn’t do any chores for the third week in a row, we feel angry because he should be helping us.
  • When our boss mismanages our workload and then blames us for our team’s poor outcomes, we feel angry because he should be taking responsibility.

We have strong emotional reactions based on whether we think the world should be the way it is.

Interestingly, scientists — people whose job it is to discover new true things — don’t assess their theories in this way. They assume they’ve never found “the truth,” per se, and instead ask themselves a different question: “How much explanatory power does this theory have?”

Newtonian mechanics, formalized in 1687, is not “true” because it fails to explain Mercury’s perihelion precession. But it was still a foundational scientific mathematical framework for 229 years until Einstein published his framework for general relativity in 1916.

In reality, no theoretical framework is ultimately “true” or “false” in the conventional sense. Theories either accurately predict phenomena such that we can use them to make dependable predictions, or they do not dependably predict anything.

In scientific inquiry, theories are useful or not useful, not true or false.

We can adopt this perspective in our personal lives. We all carry around a bucketload of beliefs about the world, things our parents taught us and our friends joke about and our television shows subconsciously reinforce every time we collapse on the couch at the end of a long day. We can stop thinking of these beliefs as “true” or “false” and start thinking of them as “helpful” or “unhelpful.”

An example from my personal life: In the past, when conflict arose in my romantic relationships, I always got wrapped up in who was right or wrong. I felt the appropriate thing to do was to bring all the evidence to bear, review our agreements and boundaries, and then we would both be on the same page one way or another.

In my mind, this was a good approach. It involved no insults or criticism, no judgment of people for what they want, and brought us to a consensus (theoretically).

Despite the supposed advantages of this approach, it did not work. My relationships in my early twenties were extremely high-conflict. For reasons I simply could not comprehend at the time, this approach made them more likely to dig into their irrational or unfair positions, not less. (I’ve since learned people I argued with felt like they were being litigated).

The quality of my relationships started turning around when I adopted an entirely new approach: instead of thinking in terms of right or wrong, I started thinking in terms of goals and helpful & unhelpful approaches. My relationships transformed. Now I pay attention to my loved ones the way scientists pay attention to natural phenomena. I observe which actions of mine lead to a happy outcome for us, and when I find something that works, I double down.

This approach is also excellent for first-time entrepreneurs. People who start their own businesses often have heads stuffed full of ideas of what running a business “should” be like, everything from how their customers should talk to them to what kind of offices they should have. These preconceived ideas sink new startups as often as any operational failure. If you learn to observe your customers and your bottom line with the careful eye of a natural scientist in the field, you are much more likely to find success in the marketplace.

Coming back to the boss who mismanages your workload. If you let go of what should be and you accept what is, you free yourself up to observe your boss with a scientist’s eye. You may find that if you talk to him in a particular way, or email him in a particular manner, he manages the team much more effectively, and you get your desired outcome without a you-versus-me conflict.

More happiness and less suffering. What’s not to like?