There is an Amazon leadership principle called “Are Right, A Lot”. It sounds kind of stupid. What the hell am I supposed to do about that? Some people are obviously more right than others. But why? They’re born that way? They work harder? How am I supposed to “Be Right, A Lot”?
In Kabbalah they say “God is a verb”, and so it is with rightness. “Right” is a process, not a state. The point is not to “be right” but “get to right”. The other day I was asked for advice from a talented colleague who is earlier in their career than I. I told them to pick one thing, even if it is small, and learn more about it than anyone else on the team. Number one without question: top of the heap, A-number-one. It’s useful to have that knowledge of course, but that’s not the point. People start to recognize you as an expert, but that’s not the point. It builds your personal brand, but that’s not the point. The point is to learn what it takes to be the best at something: learning what it takes to “get to right”. Learning what that feels like. It tends to require a great deal of focus, exploration, reliance on multiple sources of information, critical thinking, and failure. I think it’s important to go through that.
Even better, once you “get to right” in one area, it is starts to become easier to “get to right” in another. Best of all, you also begin to recognize this quality in others, which helps you as you grow into positions of leadership and influence.
I figured this out quite a few years ago, and it’s served me well. But I think I have learned something new:
Along with this pattern of rightness there emerges a “rightness instinct” that arises from our pattern matching brain. It starts to feel like you can “just tell” when people are right, even in situations where you don’t have all of the necessary information. Stuff starts to “sound right” or “sound wrong”. And it works! People can get really good at developing this instinct. Perhaps you have noticed leaders with this quality. They ask the incisive question. They immediately probe the most difficult area. They uncover the place where there was the most debate. It seems like magic.
This quality can be incredibly helpful, and impressive to watch, but also I think dangerous. One can begin to trust the instinct above what developed the instinct in the first place. Orson Welles referred to magicians who fall under their own spell of their own magic “becoming a shut eye”:
“A shut eye is the fellow who begins to believe himself. […] Suppose you are a night clerk in a hotel. When a fellow [comes to the desk] you look at them carefully and you [decide where to put them in the hotel] based on various pieces of evidence. When you have been there a little longer you glance and you tell them. Then after a little longer you don’t have to look at all. You’ve seen it, but the computer inside has made all of the deductions without your being conscious of it. The mind reader begins to do it without thinking and begins to say it’s true.”
A shut eye has become too accustomed to being right. They keep the instinct and discard what got them there in the first place. (Perhaps you’ve noticed leaders with this quality as well.) Because they are nearly always right, and they believe in their own powers, it’s hard to catch the rare cases where they, in fact, are wrong. This, eventually, becomes their undoing.
So what is to be done? I am not sure, but I have a theory: become a different kind of magician. Become the kind who reveals their trick. Penn and Teller illustrated this beautifully in this clip:
For this kind of magician, along with the question or conclusion comes the meta: the disclosure of the principle or instinct. Instead of saying, “You’re not going to meet the latency requirement” you might say instead “in these kinds of projects I typically find that latency requirements are tough to meet, because model accuracy requirements are often too demanding. Is that the case here?”
I’m finding that this method helps to demystify rightness, and open conversation. It also allows for the infinitesimal chance that you are wrong! As Penn and Teller demonstrate, the magician who reveals their trick is still magical. And far more endearing, for there is a problem with people who are always right but fail to disclose their methods. They are annoying. They can also seem distant, for most of us are so incredibly wrong most of the time. We are stumbling towards rightness.