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42. Leading the way vs doing things right

I’m good at decision making. I’m exceptionally good at saying “We’re going to go THIS way!”, and a lot of my life – both professional and private – consists of pointing the way and hoping someone will follow. Sometimes I lead myself (and others) into bad places, but I very rarely say no to the leadership role. Leading the way is kind of what I do, for better and worse.

Marie, my wife, is different.

She’ll do her best to not have to lead the way, but will gladly say “I think that’s wrong. I think we should do this instead.” Whether it’s about assembling IKEA furniture, deciding how to comfort a broken friend or figuring out what to make for dinner, she’ll happily ask me what to do, and then tell me that I’m wrong.

Recently, I stumbled upon a good way of putting this into words, when I told her “You don’t want to lead the way, but you’ll gladly tell others that they’re doing it wrong.”

We were putting together one of the aforementioned pieces of IKEA closetry, and that consisted of me saying “Next, we need to do this!” and her pointing out that quite a few times I was trying to do something wrong.

And she was right, almost every time.

That’s the most damning thing. She’s very often right. This is probably also the reason that I’ve yet to meet a person who dislikes her, while there are plenty of people who think I’m an idiot. Some of them with good reason.

The truth is that you need both kinds of people – or at least both kinds of thinking. I’m an incredibly productive individual, because I seldom doubt myself, but that also means that I make a lot of mistakes. I have a pretty solid track record and more often than not I do something smart, but mistakes definitely happen.

Marie, on the other hand, seldom makes mistakes, but often doubts herself – even when she shouldn’t. She will do something extremely well a hundred times in a row and still be nervous about attempt #101.

Strength in difference

It’s one of the many reasons that we’re still married – because we respect the other person’s ability in this regard. Some people are so awesome that they can do both, but for us there’s great strength in diversity. Even though it sometimes leads to hilarious arguments.

“Why can’t you do it right?”

“Well, then you tell me what is right!”

“It’s not that.”

“Then what is it?”

“Try something else and I’ll tell you.”

The trick, I think, is to realise that there are four kinds of people in respect to this. And to illustrate the four I’m going to use a favorite quote of mine, from Christopher Stasheff’s 1969 novel “The Warlock in Spite of Himself”.

“Sometimes mistaken, but never in doubt” describes me perfectly. In Stasheff’s book it’s a robot horse telling his sarcastic master that this is what he’s like, but I’ll take it. ;)

Marie, on the other hand is “Sometimes in doubt, but never mistaken”. Neither is 100% true of course, because just as I have doubts, so she makes mistakes. But on an overall level, the reversed quotes are fitting.

The rest of the matrix explained

Now, I guess most of us would like to be “Never mistaken, and never in doubt”. That’s hard, though, but it’s worth striving for. And on last place in the two-by-two matrix is “Sometimes in doubt, and sometimes mistaken”, which is where many people find themselves.

It doesn’t get really soul-crushing unless you take it to the extreme and go for “Always mistaken, and always in doubt”. When we feel like shit about ourselves, sometimes this seems fitting. Nothing goes right, and we’re always second-guessing ourselves. Horrible? You bet!

At the end of the day, I think it’s wise to come to terms with what sort of person you are, and use that to your advantage. Nobody’s going to want me in their project because of my zero-failure-CV, because it doesn’t exist. But plenty of people want to work with me because of my capacity for risking that failure to begin with.

There’s room for improvement, of course

Of course, I try to get better at doing things right as well, just as Marie is building her confidence. An obvious joke of fate would be that the day we meet in the middle is the day we no longer need each other.

Odds of that are slim, though.

I have no doubt that I’ll keep on making mistakes. ;)

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Written by

Director, The College of Extraordinary Experiences & Coach at McKinsey

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