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Being Correct vs. Being Right


Robby

As a kid growing up I liked some classes more than others. In math there was a “right” answer, and that felt good to me. In history there was often a right answer as well, especially if we had to memorize the date of an important event or the name of a significant figure.

But not every class had “right” answers. And it wasn’t until much later that I learned that right wasn’t the word I should have been using.

Wrong Way
© Flickr User David Goehring

The word “right” means that something is proper. It is a judgement call about preferences and morals. There’s a “right” way to wear a necktie, a “right” way to hold a fork, and a “right” way to greet a new person. Sometimes these are just conventions, and everybody knows it. Other times, they are part of our social order and we have a hard time seeing it any other way.

But the word “right” has a dark side. If something is right, then doing something else is wrong. That’s where judgement and moral authority come in. “You’re doing it wrong” or “You’re all wrong” or “That is wrong.” If there is right and wrong, there is good and bad, honorable and evil.

Instead, we may be better off with the word “correct.” If something is correct, it has been verified. It is able to be checked and tested. Like the math problems of my youth, a correct answer can be worked backwards to arrive at the original question. A correct answer is always correct in those circumstances.

The opposite of correct, of course, is incorrect. But we typically use that word to describe situations and actions, not people. We don’t say “you’re incorrect” but “that’s incorrect.” Because correctness is about facts, not opinions. Correctness is about order and structure and consistency, not about what someone thinks is best.

Perhaps most intriguing of all is that correct vs. incorrect still leaves lots of rooms. There’s often more than one correct answer to a problem, and more than one correct way of getting to that answer. And in some cases, there is no answer that is correct or incorrect. Rather, there is a practice which gets us the closest to correct. It’s not the right way to do it, because there is no one right way.

But it’s a good idea. And so aiming to be correct rather than right.

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About the Blogger: Robby Slaughter is a productivity speaker and expert. He is a principal with a AccelaWork, an Indianapolis consulting firm.

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