But I'm Right!

Of course every one is almost always right. When you think of everything anyone ever says, almost all of it is right. How much gas is left? They look at the gas gauge and tell you what it says. How much did that cost? You answer close enough for the purpose. Are we out of soap? No, there is a bar left. Even your ability to see, walk, talk, read, and cope with the world requires that you be right (enough) all the time. We have to be right almost all the time in order to survive.

Isn't that enough? For some of us, it isn't, and I am sometimes (my wife might argue almost always) one of those some of us. I would call me a perfectionist, although I have been slipping lately, taking satisficing solutions rather than optimal ones more often than not.

But being right doesn't necessarily win. And more importantly, being right is not the same as saying you are right. I used to argue with people about definitions, details beyond belief, and all sorts of other things. And I still do when it comes to legal documents I prepare for cases I am working on. I generally try to be very careful about not making statements that are not specifically true. That double negative is just one example of the myriad twists and turns I may go through to assure that I don't explicitly overstate.

Sometimes I'm so careful to be not wrong that I say things that are practically meaningless. And I hate it when people tell me that they don't disagree with me. If you agree, say so. If you disagree, say so. If you aren't sure, say so.

Wrong!!

I am right about these things. I'm sure of it! There is no question about it!! Except of course that as right as I might be, I'm probably wrong. At least I'm wrong to keep saying I'm right, especially if I am also saying you are wrong. Even if I am right that you are wrong, I am wrong to say it again and again.

I was brought up argumentative. It was part of my young training. Everything I said was questioned and I was asked to explain it. My parents were scientists and they were probably brought up in much the same way. Question everything, don't believe it, try to refute it, it's the only way to really tell if you are right. And even then you are probably only right in certain cases. And you probably don't precisely know what those cases are yet, so keep looking and questioning.

As a child, I probably learned to argue so well that I could "prove" I was right even when I was in fact wrong. Or at least I could confound whoever I was talking to to the point where they couldn't tell I was wrong or point out why. It was very helpful with the religious folks who would come by and try to convert me to whatever they thought was right. At some point in the exchange, they would start to question their own religion, and pretty soon, they would have to leave or be converted to a non-believer. It was effective, but I don't know whether it helped or hurt them.

Those who are not always right may mistake this for ego-mania. But those of us who know we are right realize that it's just realism. If you ever hear yourself say or find yourself thinking that, you should immediately seek help. I will be happy to disagree with you and help talk you down.

When I was young I drank a lot of coca-cola, with one result being that when I got older I found that I got the shakes from excess caffeine when drinking a cup of coffee. At this point I have had two cups of tea in the last day, and as a result, I am overly talkative and interrupting. That's why I am up at 4:30 writing part of this article. And you can take it from me, that when I get in this state, I am even more certain I am right, less patient, and then make far more mistakes, if only by being so anxious to move forward that I don't step as prudently. I also tent to type faster, which may produce better text - or more rambling text - but at least more text - per minute.

Wrong!!

If I seem to be repeating myself, I am.

Most people, according to studies by psychologists, don't like to think, and especially don't like to rethink. Perhaps that's why first impressions are so important. Perhaps its why I tend to write these articles from start to finish and never really revisit them. But this one I am going to review in depth. Because I know I got most of it wrong this, the first time.

This problem I have had since childhood comes back to haunt me periodically. Of course I taught my children to do many of the same things I do, even if I warned them of it along the way and tried to improve upon my upbringing. And I have not fully learned my lesson yet. Just earlier this week, I turned a "yes" into a "no" after the deal was done. And the worst part of it is that I am glad I did so. I think it was a deal I ultimately didn't want to do. Although if asked again, I will probably say yes.

So here's the story part. I was talking to someone from a startup who just had to insist he was right and knew more than I know about something I actually know a great deal about. He baited me with ridiculous question to which I should have said "I don't know" but instead I answered using fairly standard estimations in the industry, indicating first that I didn't know and that I was using such standard estimates.

Naturally, the bait was intended for him to prove me wrong, a foolish thing to do in any case if you are trying to convince someone of anything, but as a "scientist", he figured this was the right way to do things. Break down the other party by showing they are wrong (refute their theory) and (therefore) you know more than them, and they will admit you are brilliant and you have them! Except of course this has a tendency to backfire.

He pointed out the he was a scientist (in a different field than he was presenting) as if that would convince me, and also told me his business partner was a statistician, so I should believe all of the statistics. Another terrible move because (1) everyone knows that you can lie with statistics and (2) ... OK so I have to prove myself right as well.

You can probably imagine how the conversation went from there. If you have ever seen the Big Bang Theory (television show), they could probably make a good skit out of this - of course every show is in some ways just such a thing...

He may have been right, but I don't think so. And I only pushed my questions so far, because the purpose of my questions was not to ascertain the truth, but rather to ascertain his personality and what he was likely to encounter in the marketplace. It doesn't matter if he was right or wrong, because he was defensive, impolite, insistent that he was right, insulting, and generally unwilling to listen to alternative points of view. Just how I must sound much of the time.

He may have been right, but in the end, it certainly doesn't actually matter. What matters is that he is inflexible in terms of his business. I tried to explain to him that whether right or wrong, the question is whether what he has will sell. If it won't sell, it doesn't matter that it's right, and if it will sell, it doesn't matter if it's truly right - at least from a standpoint of business investment. It's not that investors want to sell things that are wrong or bad - we prefer selling the best things that exist. But if it won't sell, or the people selling it won't adapt, the investment is likely a bad deal.

That's not what they asked!

A variation on the same theme is how I answered questions about one of my businesses only 6 months ago. The question was about providing a reference, and my answer was detailed and specific to the point of the question. My business partner, who has permission to do so, cut me off at some point and I went silent as he explained something completely irrelevant to the question that was asked.

After the call I had an extended conversation with my business partner about this issue, and he explained it to me in a way that made me understand it, something that has taken me scores of years to come to see, I only really saw after he gave his explanation. What he told me was this:

I was shooting at the wrong target when I tried to answer the question they asked. The crazy thing is, for testifying on legal matters, which I do from time to time, it's exactly the opposite. In the legal context, the point is to answer the question directly and minimally, not wasting words or going beyond the issue at hand. But sales is not testifying. In this sense, they are very different.

So I am now faced with a multiple personality issue. I have to think completely differently when dealing with legal issues than when dealing with sales and marketing issues. And as a researcher and scientist, I have to retain my skepticism, which is easily done given the lack of rigor in most research I see. But as a sales person I have to have confidence in what I am saying because if I don't actually believe it, I won't say it. Except of course that when I do penetration testing as part of cybersecurity assessments, I have to not lie, but also not tell the whole truth.

How can you tell which?

My natural question (to my business partner - remember back that far?) was how I could tell whether I was being asked to answer their question or whether I was being asked to make them more comfortable with the purchase. The answer was that experience teaches you. So I guess that since you don't learn from getting it right all the time, I must be really good at it by now... I must know every time whether I was right to always just try to answer the question forgetting the purpose of the conversation. It's easy - I just have to remember all the outcomes from my life and correlate to the situations. Or I would if I believed in statistics! Now I am in real trouble.

I naturally followed this up by deciding I had to learn how to sell. So I studied it from folks like Jordon Belfort (the wolf of wall street) and others who sell and offer sales advice in various forms. According to many of these folks, sales is actually very simple (and I won't give away their secrets here). So I tried it and it works. In simplest terms, sales is about making yourself, your company, and the thing you are selling credible, trustworthy, and top flight. The questions they ask are always either about these things or a method they are using to avoid making a decision. If they are avoiding, you bring them back to the decision (or decide not to, depending on how you and they are). Otherwise, you keep increasing your credibility, your company's credibility, and the perceived value of the thing you are selling till you get a "yes".

It also turns out you don't need to know whether they are looking for a specific answer or saying they don't trust you enough yet. They will tell you once you learn how to ask the right questions and interpret the answers.

It won't work on me!

Probably not. But then it doesn't have to. Just because you and I always mean exactly what we say and only ask the exact question we need to take the next step in decision-making, doesn't mean that others do the same thing. We are the rare exceptions. It doesn't have to work on me or you. It only has to work on most people - everyone else.

The issue is not whether you mean what you ask and demand the answer. If you do require the answer to your question, you will ask it again, and get the answer or not proceed. But for everyone who is really asking about credibility, the answers that bring more credibility are just as good or better than the answers to the actual questions being asked.

Remember when I said we are all almost always right? In reality, everybody can be and is fooled all the time. That's what a lot of the cognitive science literature tells us. We make assumptions at the physiological level, for example the way we see automatically does edge detection base don sharpness of lines even though there may be no actual edge. And we make plenty of assumptions at other levels, missing lots of things, making things up when they were never really there, and so forth. It's in our nature. And frankly, it's just fine.

I recently broke down and bought a business card scanner. Now, of course, that wasn't my mistake. That, as it turns out, was the correction of the mistakes I had been making over a long time. Of course I didn't know that until now, and it might still be a mistake, only I don't know it yet. But I will see about that later.

For years I have gotten business cards from people at meetings, talks, trade shows, and you name it. I had a box of them for a while and ultimately went through to identify the "important" ones. Then I entered them in by hand. I developed a process for this to the point where I was reasonably efficient at it, including taking notes on the cards to remind me of what the next step was. At the end of the long day of a show, I would then enter details on the folks who I thought were important at the time and email them that evening to follow up. I was right to do this.

Then a while back, I became overwhelmed by these and started falling further and further behind. So I thought about buying a card scanner. But I decided instead to get an app for my phone that would use the camera to take a picture and do the OCR from there. Naturally I started with the free ones and worked my way up. And naturally, I had to correct each one using my cell phone so I could then transfer the updated database to my google account where I could track the contacts and then email folks. Naturally - sounds like I am in a cabin in the woods. Again, I was right to do this.

Finally, after spending hours doing this new (and improved?) process at about 5 minutes per card, I decided to break down and buy a card scanner with hardware and application. Yesterday, in 30 minutes or less, I scanned 35 business cards I hadn't gotten to from earlier in the week, emailed them all, and put the cards in a stack in case I ever need them for some other purpose. Then I threw them away. Because I won't need them anymore (I hope). Right again!

Symptoms of the disease

Somehow, I managed to do the right thing every time, and yet I kept changing it later and was even more right. It's not that technology advanced, it's that every step was an improvement of a sort. Some would call this constant process improvement or some such thing. I was taking things a step at a time, not investing too much and learning about new technology without excessive risk. Even if I bought the best scanner years ago, it wouldn't have worked as well as they do today.

The disease in this case is called pride. One of the seven deadly sins. The cure - humility. And to help cure you, those you deal with will try their best to humiliate you. They figure its good for you, and it might well be. On the other hand, it might hurt your feelings. It's one of the duties of a parent to occasionally humiliate their children. For example by showing baby pictures in a professional setting, talking about something you did that was embarrassing at your wedding. You get the idea.

"Pride goeth before the fall". ... Actually, since I look up the "quotes" I use, according to the Internet (e.g., http://www.deseretnews.com/top/802/7/Pride-goeth-before-a-fall-9-misquoted-Bible-phrases.html) this is one of the 9 commonly misquoted bible phrases. Along with "Money is the root of all evil." , "The Lord works in mysterious ways.", "The Seven Deadly Sins" (see above), "God helps those who help themselves.", "Cleanliness is next to Godliness.", "Spare the rod, spoil the child.", "The Three Wisemen", and "This Too Shall Pass". Note the way I placed all responsibility (and credit) for debunking on the folks who wrote the article for Desert News. Another way to make sure I am not wrong...

In summary

Being right, answering the exact questions they ask, not admitting (or believing) you are (ever) wrong, or in general being stubborn, play well in some circumstances. But not in most business situations. Being at least a bit humble, realizing that you may not know it all, and at a minimum learning how to fake it, are critical to success. It is a disease many, most, or all of us have, myself included. And I haven;t gone through and carefully reviewed this (yet), even though I am now posting it. Let's see how far I fall...

Copyright(c) Fred Cohen, 2016 - All Rights Reserved