Do the Right Thing

06 Aug 2018

Some years ago when I was living in an Ashram in rural Virginia, I met a wise, old man. I knew he was a wise, old man because he embodied certain stereotypes about wise, old men. First, he was a Gray-Bearded Yogi. Before this he was a New Yorker and a practicing Freudian Psychoanalyst. Sometimes he would say a lot of interesting and funny things, and at other times he would smile and nod and say nothing at all. I can’t remember if he ever stroked his beard.

One day he said to me, “Asoka,” (the name under which I was going at the time). “Asoka,” he said, “do you know what is the single driving force behind all our desires, motives and actions?” I thought about this for some time. I had my own ideas but, knowing he was a Freudian, suspected that the answer was going to be something to do with the libido.

“You probably suspect that the answer is going to be something to do with the libido,” he said. “But it’s not.” I listened patiently. “It’s the need … to be right.” I laughed. While I wasn’t totally surprised not to have got the right answer, this particular one for some reason blew me away. I wasn’t prepared. I had never framed human nature in those terms before.

I wouldn’t expect anyone else to have the same reaction. I suspect others would find this to be either obvious, banal, or plainly wrong, and if this is you, I don’t intend to convince you otherwise (there might be a certain irony in trying to do so). What I want to do instead is document what became for me a personal manifesto, and a lens through which I began to look at the world. As a lens, you are free to pick it up, take a look through it, and ultimately discard it if you wish. But I rather like it a lot.

What happened that day was really only the start of a long process. Eventually I would see that a preoccupation with being right was essentially an expression of power and that rectifying (from the Late Latin rectificare - to “make right”) was about exerting power over others. I would also see that this preoccupation had perhaps more to do with the appearance of being right, and that the cost of maintaining it would be in missed opportunities for learning. And I would also see that, while the rectification obsession was not a uniquely male problem, there seemed to be a general movement of rightness from that direction, and we would do well to examine that too.

I was the principle subject of my examination, and it has become a goal to continue to examine and dismantle the ways in which I assert “rightness” in the world.

A little bit about myself

Allegedly I come from a long line of know-it-alls. Unsurprisingly, it’s a behavior that passes down the male side of my family. Of course, I don’t really believe this is a genetic disposition, and it’s easy to see how this might work.

As a child I remember my family’s praising me for being ‘brainy’. They gave me constant positive feedback for being right. As long as I appeared to be right all the time I felt like I was winning. In actuality, though, I was losing. I learned to hide my ignorance of things so as never to appear wrong. I’ve spent most of my life missing answers to questions I didn’t ask. I became lazy, unconsciously thinking that my smarts would allow me to coast through life.

Once I left School, and with it a culture principally concerned with measuring and rewarding rightness, I had a hard time knowing how to fit in or do well. It would take years of adjustments before I felt any kind of success. Whenever something became hard, I’d try something new, and I was always disappointed to find that opportunities were not handed to me simply because I was ‘smart’. When I didn’t get into the top colleges I applied to it devastated me. I would later drop out of a perfectly good college, get by on minimum wage jobs when I was lucky enough even to have one, fail to understand why I didn’t get any of the much better jobs I applied for.

I stumbled upon a section in Richard Wiseman’s 59 Seconds: Think a Little, Change a Lot that claimed that children who are praised for hard work will be more successful than those that are praised for correctness or cleverness (there is some research that supports this). It came as a small comfort to learn that I was not alone. More importantly, it planted in me a seed whose growth I continue to nurture today.

I still don’t fully grasp the extent to which these early experiences have shaped my thinking and my behavior, but I have understood it well enough to have turned things around somewhat, applied myself, and have some awareness of my rectifying behavior, even if I can’t always anticipate it.

It is one thing to intervene in your own actions toward others, to limit your own harmful behavior. It is quite another when dealing with the dynamics of a group of people all competing for rightness. What I’m especially interested in currently is the fact that I don’t believe I’ve ever seen such a high concentration of people who are utterly driven by the need to be right all the time as in the tech industry.

Let’s look at some of the different ways that being right has manifest itself negatively in the workplace.

On Leadership and Teamwork

There is a well-known meme about the experience of being a programmer, and it looks like this:

The two states of every programmer

There is some truth to this illustration of the polarization of feelings felt through coding. However, it is all too common for individuals to wholly identify with one or the other. On the one side we have our rock stars, our 10x developers and brogrammers. On the other we have people dogged by imposter syndrome. In reality, the two abstract states represent a continuous and exaggerated part of us all. Having said that, I believe that everyone is in the middle, but much closer to the second state than the first. All of us.

In my personal experience I have felt a strong feeling of camaraderie when I’m working with people who all humbly admit they don’t really know what they’re doing. This qualification is important - nobody is saying they are truly incompetent, just that there are distinct limits to their knowledge and understanding. There is the sense that we don’t have all the answers, but we will nonetheless figure it out together. It promotes a culture of learning and teamwork. When everyone makes themselves vulnerable in this way great things can happen. The problem is that it only takes one asshole to fuck all that up.

When a team loses its collective vulnerability as one person starts to exert rightness (and therefore power) downwards onto it, we lose all the positive effects I’ve listed above. I’ve seen people become competitive and sometimes downright hostile under these conditions. Ultimately it rewards the loudest individuals who can make the most convincing semblance of being right to their peers and stifles all other voices.

This is commonly what we call “leadership”, and while I don’t want to suggest that leadership and teamwork are antagonistic to each other, I do want to suggest that a certain style of leadership, one concerned principally with correctness, is harmful to it. A good leader will make bold decisions, informed by their team, to move forward in some direction, even if sometimes that turns out to be the wrong one. It’s OK to acknowledge this and turn things around.

On Productivity

A preoccupation with being right can have a directly negative effect on productivity. One obvious way is what I will call refactoring hypnosis - a state wherein the programmer forgets the original intent of their refactoring efforts and continues to rework code into a more “right” state, often with no tangible benefit while risking breakages at every step.

Style is another area that is particularly prone to pointless rectification. It is not unusual for developers to have a preference for a certain style in whatever language they are using. It is interesting that while opposing styles can seem utterly “wrong” to the developer it seems that this is the area of software development in which there are the fewest agreements over what we consider to be good or “right”. In Ruby there have been attempts to unify divergent opinion in the Ruby Style Guide but it has been known to go back and forth on some of its specifics (or merely to state that there are competing styles), and the fact that teams and communities eventually grow their own style guides (AirBnb, GitHub, thoughtbot, Seattle.rb) shows that perhaps the only thing we can agree on is that a codebase be consistent. Where it lacks consistency there lie opportunities to rectify, but this is almost always a bad idea if done for its own sake.

Finally, being right simply isn’t agile. One of the core tenets of the Agile Manifesto is that while there is value in following a plan, there is more value in responding to change. This seems to suggest that our plans, while useful, will inevitably be wrong in crucial ways. An obsession with rightness will inevitably waste time - accepting that we will be wrong encourages us to move quickly, get feedback early on and iterate to build the right thing in the shortest time.

On Culture

As I’ve asserted above, none of us really knows what we are doing (for different values of “really”), and indeed this sentiment has been commonly expressed even among some of the most experienced and celebrated engineers. I think that there is both humor and truth in this but, while I believe the sentiment is well-intentioned, words are important and can sometimes undermine what’s being expressed here. I’ve seen people I look up to utter something of the form, look, I wrote [some technology you’ve probably heard of], and I still do [something stupid/dumb] - what an idiot! This doesn’t reassure me at all. All I think is, wow, if you have such a negative opinion of yourself, I can’t imagine what you’d think of me.

Perhaps instead of fostering a culture of self-chastisement we can celebrate our wrongness. We know that failure can sometimes come at great cost, but it’s almost always because of flaws in the systems we have in place. A good system will tolerate certain mistakes well, and simply not let us make other kinds of mistakes. A mistake really is a cause for celebration because it is also a learning, and celebrating creates an opportunity to share that learning with others while simultaneously destigmatizing its discovery. I am happy that my team has recently formalized this process as part of our weekly retrospectives - I would encourage everyone to do this.

One of the most harmful ways I’ve seen the rectification obsession play out is in code reviews. The very medium of the code review (typically GitHub) is not well set up for managing feelings when providing close criticism of one’s work. We can exacerbate this with an obsession with being right, especially when there are multiple contenders in the conversation.

I have been on teams where this obsession extends into code review to the point where, in order for one to get one’s code merged, a reviewer has to deem it “perfect”. Ironically, this seems less an indicator of high code quality in the codebase and more of the difficulty of ever making changes to the code subsequently. Having your work routinely nitpicked can be a gruelling experience - worse so when review take place in multiple timezones and discussions go back and forth over multiple days or even weeks. Personally, I’ve been much happier when the team’s standard for merging is “good enough”, encouraging iterative changes and follow up work for anything less crucial.

It is hard to overstate the importance of language when looking at these interactions. There has been much talk recently about the use of the word “just” (as in “just do it this way”) in code review, and I am glad that this is undergoing scrutiny. It seems to suggest that not only is the recipient wrong, but deeply misguided - the “right” way is really quite simple. This serves to exert power in a humiliating way, one that minimizes our effort and intellect along the way. Of course, there are countless more ways that we can do harm through poorly chosen words, but I am glad that we have started to examine this.

On Mansplaining

It is telling to me that the standard introduction to any mansplanation, well, actually…., is almost the ultimate expression of rectification. It is appropriate that we have identified this behavior as an expression of masculine insecurity - the man uses sheer volume and insistence to counter a position he poorly understands. More innocent mansplanations still work in the same way - without contradicting a man may simply offer some explanation (I am right!), believing this to be helpful to the person whose ignorance he has assumed.

I am aware that there could be some irony in trying to frame the whole of this phenomenon in terms of my manifesto, but it is not my intention to do so. It is rather that mansplaining reveals a great deal about the harm done and intentions behind rectifying behavior.

Doing the Right Thing

I do not want to suggest a feeling of smug superiority - just about every harmful behavior I have described above I have also engaged in at some point. I know I will continue to do so, too. But I want this to be better, and I want to work with people who are also committed to these goals.

Looking back to the start of my journey, I have to question now the intent of the wise, old man in his original assertion about human behavior. Was this yet another example of some unsolicited advice from a person who exploited their maleness and seniority to add more weight to their pronouncements than perhaps they deserved? Is this all that wise, old men do? Almost certainly.

As it turned out, I did not wholly embrace it as truth (none of the above makes any claims to social science or psychology), but neither rejected it wholesale. I discovered that while it may not be literally true, I might arrive at smaller truths by entertaining it as an idea (the contradiction is probably what made me laugh). I’m grateful that it was shared with me.

That there is nothing wrong with being right. Rather, it is the desire to be right that colors our judgment, that leads us on the wrong path. Being right is also not the same thing as doing the right thing. And I want to focus my efforts now on this, while trying to free myself from the tyranny of being right.