To succeed, focus on something other than “rightness”

This Facebook post by Facebook developer Ryan Patterson got a lot of attention; as of the writing of this post, it had 734 Likes (thanks to an appearance on the front page of Hacker News):

It is a sincere and well-written post.  But I want to address what I perceive could be a dangerous misunderstanding of its thrust:

“Agency is the capacity for a person to act in the world. As a hacker, having agency over your world is critical to fully explore the boundaries of problems and find how to best leverage your solutions.

At a higher level, take ownership over the entire company. Don’t let your coworkers be less than the best that they can be. Understand the trade-offs being made and the factors that led to them; understand temporary solutions and the priorities that necessitate them, but don’t accept a decision that you feel is wrong without raising the issue and getting a better understanding. This is your company (your garden) and if you let people pull in the wrong direction the entire plan will fall into disarray. Make sure that you encourage changes and that you’re confident that the changes happening are the right ones.

It’s easy to fall into the mindset that you don’t know everything, everyone around you is smarter and more experienced, and that if you say something incorrect you’ll be judged by your peers. This isn’t the case. When you have an idea, share it with your team, even if you aren’t confident it’s the right idea. Wrong ideas are often stepping stones to right ideas, both because they help define the real boundaries of the problem that you’re facing and because you can iterate on a wrong idea to reach a right one.”

These are wise words.  But there is a danger in words like “best” and “right.”  The danger is that we fool ourselves into believing that it is possible to know what is “best” or “right.”

The world of startups is uncertain; pledging your allegiance to what is “best” or “right” helps you deal with that uncertainty, but carried to its logical extreme, can turn you into an ideologue.  After all, if you give yourself the right to decide what is “best” or “right,” so might everyone else.  Pretty soon, everyone is arguing about what they think is right, and the end result is chaos and conflict.

To succeed, you need to focus on something bigger than yourself.  Each team member’s goal should be to keep finding ways to move the company closer to its ultimate goals.  Each discussion or debate can be framed in these pragmatic, rather than ideological terms.

Too often, startup entrepreneurs and engineers get sucked into focusing on who’s “right”; a natural thing for people who have excelled at providing answers.  But “rightness” doesn’t matter; what matters is achieving your goals.

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