As a kid, I was right a lot. I wasn’t some baby genius (great movie by the way). I worked hard for that sweet feeling of being right. I hate to admit it now, but I framed my Grade six Social Studies exam that I received 100% on because I was so darn pleased with it. It must have been an addiction, because it wasn’t that I liked knowing my world capitals, but I did like the fact that I knew them better than anyone else. While we could look into the deep-seated causes of my hubris and tell you it was derived of a competitive spirit coupled with insecurity and a need to be liked, that’s not important. What is important is that being right felt good, which was bad.
Because I loved this feeling, when I was wrong, it tore me up. I felt like a failure. I felt embarrassed. Even if no one noticed, I noticed. So for better or for worse, it motivated me to work my ass off. From elementary school right through to university, this attitude haunted me every step of the way. It’s what made me raise my hand before anyone else. Or stay up an extra hour reviewing that term paper for the eighth time. Whatever it took to be on top, I did it. This worked out pretty well for me for a while, but as you can guess, I had to stop.
No one gives a shit if you’re right
On my very first day as a junior copywriter; I got an assignment proofing a print ad. My perfectionism insisted that I spend way too long polishing (the art director must have come to my office two or three times to see if I was done). I handed it in and was quite chuffed with myself… what a good job I did! I waited for praise. And waited. But nothing happened.
Nothing. Nada. Nilch.
There was no mark or grade to show off how well I did. No high scores. No scholarships. No compliments. Nothing to celebrate. There was just another job on my plate. After a lifetime of my success being measured in numbers and stars, none of it mattered. There was just work.
Instead of adapting, I focused on the joy of success and the high of being right. In meetings I would say obvious things just so people knew I knew them. My ideas were better than theirs, afterall. But when I got feedback, a little bit of me died. I hid it okay, but while everyone else was focused on the bigger picture of doing good work, I was only after the feeling of being right.
During a brainstorm session with my creative director, it hit me like a baseball to the head. We were in his office trying to solve a new brief. I was struggling with it and felt insecure. I had nothing to contribute. So when he threw an idea, I remember tossing it back to him with a nonchalant ‘it just wouldn’t work.’ I didn’t do it constructively—this was me wanting to be right. But you know what he did?
He didn’t care. He took the feedback, acknowledged it, and moved on. He didn’t feel like he was wrong, but more importantly, he didn’t feel as though I was right. And neither did I. I knew from that moment I had to stop seeking validation and needing to be right. I had to start focusing on the work.
I look back on this time and cringe. I was in my first year of the job I’ve always wanted (seriously, I used to religiously trace and draw logos when I was a kid) and I was obsessed with being right. Why? I was scared. I was scared of people thinking I wasn’t good enough. I was scared of being fired. I was scared of not doing good work. Blindly striving for the fleeting high I got from being right was a defence mechanism—and a poor one at that.
How I put my money where my mouth is
Today, I can tell you I am a much different person. But it was a tough journey. How did I get here? Let me tell you.
I learned to love being wrong.
I tossed my personal ego and gained a collective ego
I have become more concerned about the collective output of my company and team than anything I do individually. I stop claiming credit by focusing on those around me. By celebrating their successes, we put the work of coworkers, teams, and bosses in the limelight. I use we instead of I. I brag about the work the company does, not just my team’s. It felt weird at first, even a little forced, but this newfound confidence makes me feel better than any high grade ever did.
I learned to love feedback
This one was the hardest for me, but now, every time I receive feedback, I repeat one thing in my head: ‘will it make the work better?’ And the answer is always yes. So I suck it up, soak it in, and most importantly, respect it. I also find that now, even if I’m 99% sure my idea is the way to go, and before I go off spouting opinions left right and centre, I ask myself: what if I’m wrong? This exercise is liberating and makes the whole process so much more relaxing and enjoyable. When I stop wallowing about feeling wrong, I notice people seem to want my opinion more than ever.
I fake it
I nod my head. I say some oohs and aahs. I smile. I hate to say it, but I know I’m gonna have to do this now and then. This doesn’t mean I’m selling out, it just means I’m picking my battles. Sometimes I’ll be right and want to shout it from the rooftops (and sometimes I should), but in the end it could do more damage than good. So I bite my tongue if it’s necessary, because I know that when I really do need to convince the masses, they’ll be more than ready to listen. This sometimes fills me with a sense of injustice, but I remind myself of the big picture.
I don’t need to be right all the time.
I focus on the work
I make the work better. Then I make it better again. I become obsessive over this goal and I let it drive my decisions. This doesn’t mean I’m a jerk about it, but when I put the work first, it deadens the other noise so I can make sound decisions free of ego and politics. Plus when it’s all about the work, seeing these ‘wrong’ moments as opportunities to learn and improve comes more naturally.
Being wrong can feel right
Right now, you’re probably thinking one of two things:
- That’s not me. That’s you.
- That was me.
If you’re number one, let me give you a warning… We will all go through a stage at some point in our creative careers when we deny our true but ugly selves. Trust me. Whether we like it or not, we have to face what we really are. And because we’re creative, we push ourselves even harder. If you’re in group number two, good on ya. You’ve discovered the secret. Being wrong can actually feel so right. It can push us further creatively.
It makes you more confident
If you always need to be right, coworkers will notice (and not in a good way). But when you don’t care if you’re right, well that’s when they’ll assume you know what you’re doing—and that’s the goal all along. This confidence is contagious, and it’s going to help you feel great about your work and the work of those around you.
It leads to humility
When you (and your ego) become okay with being wrong, there’s nothing much to lose, so you can really swing for the fences. Throw wide the big and risky ideas and you’ll find they’ll inspire the same behaviour in those around you as the fear of being told they’re wrong dribbles away.
It leads to learning and collaboration
When you stop obsessing over being right, you expose yourself to other ideas and perspectives. And this funny thing happens when you accept that you don’t know everything. You learn things you wouldn’t have otherwise. You open yourself to ideas like 10,000 character tweets (okay, bad example) or your teammate’s idea for lickable stickers.
It creates a relaxed workplace
Listening instead of trying to prove your worth every three seconds? Well, that’s when you actually DO prove your worth—by creating a relaxed workplace. Get it? Because you’re not talking. You’re listening. In an industry that relies on the free flow of everyone’s ideas, this is critical.
A work in progress
The incredible thing about being more confident, putting my ego in check, increasing collaboration, and letting myself thrive in a chilled out workplace is that they all lead to one thing—better work. Plus, letting go means I can feel successful and happy again, but this time it’s for all the right reasons.
I’m still a work in progress, but eight years into my career, I’ve learned to focus on the work. I’ve learned not to seek out success just for the sake of it. Most importantly, I’ve learned that being wrong can be just right.