What’s Right is What Works

As I continue my reading in The Obstacle is the Way, I felt like reading something about action again, as I begin gearing up to work on my own projects for a bit. The pragmatism in the chapter of this title really appealed to me.

This chapter begins in an unlikely place: in a battle between two American fruit companies in South America. I don’t know the last time they were considered models to emulate, but the moral of the story was clear: two different people claimed to own land that both companies wanted to own. One company did the ‘right’ thing by hiring lawyers to figure out who the land belonged to. The other company did the right thing by simply buying the land from both people and then clearly owning it outright.

What’s right is what works.

My own story

I have my own story along these lines that I think of often. It involves an amateur volleyball tournament that I agreed to join on the condition that our team would play ‘just for fun.’ We traveled to a lake and camped at the beach where the tournament was to be held.

Then, when the tournament started, the competitiveness of the neighbor who put the team together took over. Having fun was no longer important, winning was. And the thing was, we had the wrong strategy for winning.

At lower levels of volleyball, most teams score against themselves by hitting the ball out of bounds or failing to get it over the net in their three hits. My strategy was to just put the ball over the net and let the other team mess up by trying to be perfect with ‘pass, set, and spike.’ But, the team captain insisted that we pass, set, and spike.

We lost consistently, by giving our opponents points. Or, when the opponent made a mistake and gave us the serve, we’d serve overhand (the ‘correct’ way) and into the net, giving up the serve.

I’ve since gotten over the experience, but it wasn’t fun, and we didn’t win. So, neither the team captain nor I was really happy. And, it’s what I think of every time I think of people putting the “right way” to do things over the value of getting results.

A radical pragmatist

There’s a paragraph towards the end of the chapter that I really like:

Start thinking like a radical pragmatist: still ambitious, aggressive, and rooted in ideals, but also immenently practical and guided by the possible. Not on everything you would like to have, not on changing the world right at this moment, but ambitious enough to get everything you need. Don’t think small, but make the distinction between the critical and the extra.

In these days of perfectly-executed solutions and people presenting their brilliance on social media as though it bust fully-formed from their heads like a latter-day Athena, it can be worthwhile to say that “when I don’t think I can, I’ll focus on what I need.”

Sure, I might never be a fully-qualified software developer if I never sit down and take structured courses and intern in a real software company. But, as long as I’m able to execute the projects that matter to me, why would I waste time on being more of a developer?