The Right Way Fallacy

Image: Fighting Orchids, Janus de Winter, 1917/Rijksstudio

Perfectionism is deceptive; it does its work in many disguises. One of these is in seeking permission to do what you want to do, through excessive research and looking for some version of “the right way.”

It’s natural to crave certainty. We want structure to take less risk. We want a “tried and true” method that generally works. And we, as the people in this case, tend to confuse this feeling of certainty with objective likelihood. 

Savvy marketers, authors, teachers, and information entrepreneurs notice this craving. Perhaps with the best of intentions (but many times with a profit motive), they attempt to make specific experiences and advice general. 

But a lot of times, it just doesn’t work. The main reason is because: 

Each individual person has specific personalities, preferences, and strengths. The circumstances are also specific; but they are also complex, in that they change. 

But still, with so many “successful” and seemingly credible people claiming their way is best, the implicit—and perhaps charitably, unintended—message gets across:

Try this way. It’s the right way.

This is completely BS in creativity. There is no right way to be yourself. The only wrong way is to wait and not do anything. The right way is any way that gets you to take action. In fact, all this story has done is hold us back. While a specific way may have worked for a specific person, there’s no guarantee it works for the rest of us.

But, still, we buy into the persuasion of the right way fallacy. So we wait, precious weeks, months, years, or even decades for the stars to align, to find permission, to buy a course, or to hope that we feel prepared to be creative and pursue our passions the right way

Fear, Uncertainty, and Doubt

The term “Fear, Uncertainty, and Doubt” (FUD) is commonplace and prominent enough to have its own Wikipedia page. A person using FUD persuades people to do what they suggest by appealing to fear and confusion.

Anyone selling their own method and framework notices these three practically unbearable emotions, and slips in a product—the right way—to soothe it. There are a few reasons this isn’t good for anyone interested in creative work:

  • Sometimes, positive outcomes happen not because, but in spite of, the right way. 
  • Sometimes, unintended or negative outcomes happen because of the right way.
  • Sometimes, positive outcomes happen with the opposite of the right way—which is, by logic, the wrong way.
  • The right way can be expensive!

Nonetheless, the right way is a necessity in solving a person’s Fear, Uncertainty, and Doubt. We don’t want to hear we’ll need to work hard. We don’t want to hear success won’t be guaranteed. We want a “smart” way, a tried-and-true way—the right way—to solve our problem. We want this so badly we’ll even consider paying thousands of dollars to gain access to the right way—the right community, the right process, the right cosign. 

The problem is, for some of us, we spend so much time on social media listening to everything, that we might start doubting ourselves. Everybody seems to have figured something out, some version of the right way. They seem so certain, and we are oh-so-uncertain. 

“After all, it worked for them, it must work for me, right?”

Maybe we want to feel connected with someone who appears successful. This connection will soothe doubt in ourselves. We are insignificant little beings, while billionaires, Twitter celebrities, and influencers are the new idols. Even if we failed, we failed doing it their way, the right way. It wasn’t our own fault or undoing. We don’t need to accept full responsibility.

Even if we make a decision to buy, we begrudgingly note that the most wealthy benefactors of these courses aren’t the students, but the teachers of the right way fallacy.

The Best Plans are Driven by Execution

Formal strategic planning has no correlation with profits. However, informal strategizing does. This happens for four reasons, which author William Starbuck gets into. Of those four, two are particularly relevant here:

  • Teachers and authors hold inaccurate perceptions and assumptions of the shifting landscape and their customers.
  • No one, including authors, can forecast accurately over the long term.

Even with corporations spending tens of millions of dollars on management consultants and formal strategic planning, based on Starbuck’s research, it doesn’t actually work. Of course, there are a lot of political reasons the management consulting industry exists—to make managers look good or less bad. They make unpopular decisions on behalf of management, and give managers certainty with their brand power (“No one ever got fired for buying IBM”), amongst many other reasons.

Think about this from an advice or management consulting practice: the informal planning, the conversations, etc. are often the most valuable parts of the experience. The plan itself is nice, the reporting is great, but it’s a static document that doesn’t adapt to changes. 

For example, in situations like the pandemic, the plan itself actually becomes kind of useless. Assumptions are often too wrong, or fluctuate, and it’s difficult to plan. Planning requires information gathering, constant shifting, constant re-positioning. 

So it goes with creative work. A plan, a process, etc., doesn’t necessarily guarantee success. The key is to make as much acceptable, high-quality, work as possible.

There Is No Right Way

Creativity is the largely misunderstood (and often very mislabeled) skill of the future, perfectionism is counterproductive to creativity, advice-seeking and looking for the right way is a manifestation of perfectionism. 

It’s okay to make mistakes; the creative process is practically full of outcomes that we’ll label as mistakes. 

But every piece of advice is a starting point, a proposition for you to say “Yes” or “No” to. And each piece is only useful in that it gets you to take action, while soothing negative emotion and minimizing risk.

You figure out your own way by constantly starting and adapting. Everything is a new starting point for you to try and keep, or to try and discard.

Other people’s rules or principles are good, but creating your own for yourself is better. 

There’s no point in being stubborn and not listening to anyone. But, at the end of the day, you are responsible for your life. Generally, it will be more fulfilling and rewarding—and probably fun—to succeed on your terms than to succeed at living someone else’s terms. Because if you fail, there’s no illusion: it’s on you. The safety cushion of following someone else’s way is just driven by ego and fear.

Bruce Lee writes in Striking Thoughts (p. 173), “Do not look for a successful personality to duplicate.” Always be yourself. You may start with imitation, but choose the harder path as you move forward. Ask yourself, “How can I be me?”

I have good news for you. You don’t need to wait for yourself to be ready. You don’t need to make an impulsive decision either, to bet the farm tomorrow. You can take small, acceptable, risks with your time and money, you can work every day, and be perfectly suited to head in the direction of the place you want to go. I wrote a book full of advice on how to do this—it’s not the right way, but full of 46 different ways to try it.

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