What’s So Wrong With Being Wrong?

The Apprentice’s skin-of-his-teeth Estate-Agent-in-disguise character, acting as Project Manager for Team Stratospheric ShitFucks, defiantly puts the team’s main creative in the tech sub team, not the creative sub team. He quickly, silently, realises his mistake, but stands by it, then spends the rest of the task desperately hoping the team will somehow win against all odds, via a combination of staying positive, avoiding questions and wearing shiny brown shoes. Should they win, his moment of impulsive ignorance, (putting the creative guy in the tech team) can then masquerade as an inspirational masterstroke.  Not exactly how it works in the operating theatre.

As a Guitar Teacher I visit a teenage boy whose family home nestles between monstrosities that hosted the Apprentice candidates in previous years (as well as Jamie Oliver’s for sale 10 bedroom home, the online details of which my Dad emails to me seemingly every Sunday evening, in a copy-less email that simultaneously says “Look at this interesting thing” “Do you still like cooking?” and “Might you ever vote Conservative?” all in one. A roof garden speaks louder than words.) My Hampstead student’s Dad is a top brain surgeon.  I’ve previously commented, in thinly-veiled political passive aggression, to both my Dad, and some of my Capitalist acquaintances that when I visit this home, sandwiched between gated mansions with kitchen islands more leant on by 12k-salaried nannies than owners or tenants, that it’s nice that this particular family has generated this wealth and luxury by giving to people, rather than taking from them.  My Dad hummed dismissively and returned to work on the pilot episode of Celebrity Chef Zoopla Cribs.

When, on The Apprentice, the creative guy repeatedly says – “Are you sure about putting me in the tech team?  My strengths are creativity and branding. It’s my day job.” – It should trigger the Foxtons-faker-PM’s ‘business acumen’ sirens:

This is one of those things Lord Sugar always mentions after the event, the camera man is doing a close up of my face, this is my moment to realise I’m getting this wrong.  I’ll reverse the situation, use common sense, work to our strengths, win and be lauded for my humble logic. 

He should then leap into action, reverse his decision:  For the team’s success, the saving of his own skin, and the deferral of the snivelling, inevitable “Thanks for the opportunity, thanks Karen and Claude”.  It should be exactly like that feeling when your brain leaps into action in a moment of confidence, when it knows a solution for sure.  Usually some well-rehearsed facts in answer to an exam/quiz/interview question.

In my Guitar teaching work, I at last, frequently get to argue with children over absolutely nothing. Fortunately, my own childhood was 18 years of solid training, so I always win, which is what’s important. I have 3 students suffering early- and mid- adolescence ego boosts, or rather ego defences.  So now, top priority above sleeping, eating and whatsapp-ing, is simply to not be proven wrong, because it’s a sign of weakness. If you can prove someone else wrong in the process, then glory glory Man United.  Great training for the next decade, when society will dictate they fight to the death over the last Almond croissant in Bishopsgate Pret.  That’s not a slight on them (or on the stock levels at Bishopsgate Pret) – We’ll all be fighting over it, they’ll just be nearer the action, having grown up in London rather than moving down from the North.  The ones who moved down from the North will have already left Pret, (shaking their heads at the “overpriced” croissant) and entered the RBS building to earn themselves £70k, by donating the lion’s share of their brief candle in the dark to some invisible Billionaires who allow them 30 minutes later in the day to head back to Pret in case the queue has gone down and the croissant has been reduced.

My 3 ego-defending Guitar students are also 3 of my favourites – Intelligent, funny, entertaining, great families, and most of all – They do their fucking practice, for fuck’s sake.  I’m in no position to criticise their constant-challenging, don’t-prove-me-wrong-I’ll-prove-you-wrong attitudes, as my own anti-bullshit-clever-clogs-demand-avoiding-anti-authority-cynicism has been one of the only constant fixtures in a landscape of fluctuating quotidian necessities, like saturated fat, socks without holes in, and secure mental health.  My strategy is to engage these students, help them, be there for them, by confronting the attitude directly – 1 part “Look, just focus more on playing your Guitar than trying to prove me wrong, because I know what I’m doing and I’m not interested in playing games. I’m not your school teacher and if I want to leave then I can just walk out” to 2 parts “Getting things wrong is OK. I remember when I – Went on stage with an out of tune Guitar / called a stranger “Mummy” / Gave your Dad a handshake at the end of your lesson when he was actually just extending his hand to take my empty takeaway coffee cup to bin it for me.” (The other way round is much worse, at least.)

Adult perfectionists should hope their job and the thing they love doing are the same, because adult perfectionists are only capable of doing one thing.  They start Guitar lessons, and quit 3 weeks later, infuriated with what they perceive as “a lack of progress”. In reality their progress is startling, at 10 times the speed of their non perfectionist counterparts, which I do tell them, but to no avail: They, as the perfectionist just can’t be wrong.  I had a 23 year old student, on a £100k annual, parental allowance, spending all his time on music. No job, a £10,000 guitar, a Hyde Park flat, and a dog called Jimi (yes, really).  He practised 8 hours a day for 2 years, (and consequently needed a chiropractor). Now a brilliant Guitarist, he moved to L.A. “for a change” having spent 2 years in London without ever performing, recording, writing a complete song, forming a band, playing an open mic night, meeting another musician, or opening the curtains.

I thought this inability to be wrong, this ego, perfectionism and guardedness was just a natural rite of passage tied into growing up, rebellion and independence, but it isn’t.  It’s alive and well in adulthood.  We find our parents, in-laws and elders acting in this emotionally guarded way.  Then there’s our colleagues going on extended bullshit rambles, meaningless jargon falling off the tongue easier than “Oops, I made a mistake”.  And then of course, The Apprentice candidates, and sales people in general, (whose entire career is spent trying to pretend it actually matters whether they’re there or not, that they sell more than a robot with a shirt and tie and programmed product knowledge would).  Are the adults suffering from this just the unfortunate ones who never grew out of the adolescent ego-defence phase?  Or is there something about our society that makes people, particularly at work or in business, feel that they’re surrounded by ruthless vultures, waiting to swoop and peck them to death at the mere sight of a single bead of temple sweat during a presentation, or at the suggestion of backing down on anything at all? 

We’re bombarded with a certain narrative about business, work and success.  It can be found on all the virtual and physical bookshelves in the Christmas 2016-release business autobiographies, and the bargain buckets straining under the weight of the 2015 equivalents.  It can also be found in the ink of the ‘quirky’ faux-personable posters on all the Virgin East Coast train toilet walls, and in The Apprentice boardroom, glaring across the table like a furious, smartly-dressed testicle.  It’s the well-worn story (and it is just a story) of the individual who ignored all advice, was single-minded, knew their route, determinedly and ruthlessly ploughed on and on and on down the same course without any trace of doubt whatsoever:  Blinkered, ruthless, ignoring advice, removing doubters, dispensing with naysayers.  Which, coincidentally, is also the perfect recipe for failure.  It’s just that failed businessmen don’t get offered book deals.

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