The Impossibility of Being Right

Pritpal S Tamber

January 28, 2017

How in socially-mindful innovation you can spend too long being right to the detriment of ever achieving anything

I had a few experiences this week that reminded me of something a successful entrepreneur told me many years ago: 

You can be right, but it doesn’t mean you’re going to win. 

I’ve been trying to get some on-the-ground help for a symposium I’m planning. People love the work we do, including the symposium, but the hard reality is that we work on a shoe string and have to take every commercial decision carefully. So, this week, I was speaking with someone about helping us with the symposium. 

Social Justice 

During the discussion it surfaced that this person was only interested in working with organisations seeking to promote social justice through how they work. I’m fine with that, and would probably want the same thing of the people I work with, but as the conversation progressed I realised that what that meant was not cheap. 

Yes. I know. If it’s cheap it’s likely that someone somewhere is getting exploited. I understand that. And yet, at the same time, I’m on a shoe string. So, what gives? 

Gender Equality 

While I was pondering this I got some feedback that the symposium had been criticised for having an all-male panels. This is, in fact, true, but only because we’re still working on a number of other sessions (in which there are women leading) and are not yet ready to release the full details. So, it’s just a matter of timing.

I explained that to the critic who was planning to share information about the symposium with people she thought might be interested. Her response was that she’d share the info once we have the women on there. I get that, but it might take weeks. And waiting that long might impact ticket sales. And impacting ticket sales might mean operating on even less than a shoe string – in other words not operating at all. 

Finding The Balance

These are just two examples of the constant barrage of righteousness that’s both laudable and crippling. You know the feeling. Well-meaning friends and colleagues are constantly saying have you considered this, have you read that, surely you know this, did it occur to you to consider that. Yes, yes, yes, and yes. But if I’m spending all of my time considering, reading and learning, when am I doing any doing

Of course, I know that being exposed to the bigger picture is important, especially in the kind of work that I do. But there has to be a balance. If all you do is try to be right, are you ever left with any time to achieve anything? In my experience, it’s a hard balance to get right. 

The experience reminds me of two things: the absurdity of advice and the levels of privilege required to innovate. 

The Absurdity Of Advice

Back when I was a medical publisher, we used to have meetings of the editorial boards of the journals that I published. The doctors on those boards barely remembered the name of the journal and yet, for that two hours, they proffered wheel barrows of advice that the journal simply must do – research we needed to know about, article formats we needed to change, processes that needed to be sharpened up. It was, to be honest, a bit depressing. And afterwards we’d work like crazy to respond to all of the things they said. 

But here’s the thing. They didn’t really care. I’m not saying they were calous, only that they felt they had to say something because we created this meeting for them, and in the meeting were all of their peers, and their peers were saying stuff, so they felt they had to, and, in the end, the wheel barrow was full. Job done. We asked for their advice and they gave it. But did any of it matter


Of course, tweaks to article formats are not of the same level of importance as social justice and gender equality. But being able to respond to the well-meaning demands of social justice and gender equality advocates requires time, which requires money. And that brings me back to the shoe string. In the end, being able to adhere to all of these demands is becoming – at least in my experience – only possible for the privileged. If you have a mortgage, you don’t have a chance. 

The trade-off that the entrepreneur put to me all those years ago was prescient. I think his use of the term ‘win’ isn’t helpful but it does seem to me that in socially-mindful innovation you can spend too long being right to the detriment of ever achieving anything. 

That’s certainly how this week felt to me. 

Pritpal S Tamber

I’m a doctor who trained as a medical editor and publisher and now researches and consults on the link between community power and health equity. My interest in community power started when I was the Physician Editor of TEDMED and is explained in My Perspective. I also work as a freelance medical editor and publisher for organisations that want to write high-quality articles and a strategy for their publishing and promotion. Find out more on my About page.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

See other articles in this/these project(s):
Community & Health Newsletter
Scroll to Top