I believe that pass or fail is a false duality. But how can that be when sometimes in life there is such a clear right/wrong, win/lose, on time or off time construct? Well it comes back to priorities.
As a dancer and a dance teacher, being on time seems like an absolute. And this is empirically true, you can’t both be dancing on time and off time to the music at the same time, and ideally we would be on time. Imagine my surprise when a profound lesson came through as I was teaching one of my couples.
In this example, Mr. X was having the devil of a time hearing the music and getting his feet to move on time with the music. Mrs. X could hear it just fine and was trying to help. Her version of helping was undermining his leadership and also was not actually helping, since all it did was cause his pride to take a hit and he went into an inward shame spiral and if that’s not enough pressure, this is not a private struggle, he has two witnesses (his wife and his dance instructor) so there is no hiding the “failure” to find the beat, step on the beat, stay on the beat.
And then it hit me. She was getting a high from being right, from winning, from being better than him at this dance skill of finding the beat and stepping in time with it. And while my dancer-self wanted to validate her correctness on the one hand, my following-self wanted to pull her aside and school her. So was born a phrase I’ve often used since then but came through to me then for the first time. I pulled her aside and asked her “Would you rather be right alone, or wrong together?”
It forced us all back on track…why were they here to learn to dance together, if not with the purpose of uniting forces? She shifted her purpose, her goal, and her mission was no longer to be the A student and impress her teacher with her own ability to learn the material. Now her goal was to be supportive, an A+ partner, and get in the same boat with her husband. She still complained to me sometimes non-verbally because dancing off time can create a profound dissonance for a follower with a keen ear for music, and a deep desire to do things “right.” And you know something? He still struggled to find and stay on the beat, but now the struggle had one name – timing, and was no longer compounded by the inability to unify with his partner. Now the partnership had a hope of one day being able to move together as one – with or without the timing element. And resolving that dissonance between the couple was a bigger deal than forcing them to come into alignment with the music. In fact when they practiced their patterns without music they were often together on most things.
So here was born a surprise for me. I never in my wildest dreams before this lesson would have expected myself to tolerate, let alone encourage dancing off time. I pride myself in doing things right, well, and also on being an excellent instructor which means my results can be felt and seen by my students being great dancers also. I had to set aside my ego and recognize that her need to be right about timing, and my need to be an effective and successful teacher were in this moment causing more of a problem. I suggested that instead of paying her attention to the rhythmical underpinnings of the song she might listen instead to the singer or melody, to help alleviate any dissonance. It can be a real challenge to dance off time when you have a good ear. But this suffering and that adjustment she was willing to make, while a sacrifice on some level was the lesser of the two sacrifices at stake. Do you think they would have continued dancing if she was constantly rubbing it in his face that she was on time and he was wrong/off time? Not likely. The human spirit can withstand many things, and perhaps he would have dug in his heels and become stubborn and tried to best her rather than quit, who knows? Maybe he would have had fun with it and risen to the occasion eventually. But the signs were everywhere that he was instead internalizing his anger and frustration, and would more likely have thrown in the towel or suggested she take the lessons without him. The way forward together was to let her know there was another way…a way neither of us would have imagined possible.
Now, perhaps some of you reading this would say “I would much rather be right alone than wrong together.” And that is a wonderful and powerful awareness to have of yourself, and important to keep in mind when you are forced to work in teams or have to plan things with family or friends. You might have the option at many times to choose to be right alone…but there may come a time, or a person, or a project where you will now be in a position to consciously choose to prioritize the relationship or mission above accuracy or the inner joy you feel at winning.
Listen, I get it. I love acing a test, coming in first place, setting someone straight by teaching them or correcting them. But there comes a time when you take a breath and evaluate whether what you are about to set straight will benefit someone in the long haul before you tell them about their misuse of an apostrophe. Is it going to enrich their life or make them feel small? Am I sharing knowledge to build someone up or to make myself feel more significant, smart, or superior? Am I feeling threatened by this person? Am I puffing myself up? Is the correction going to preserve meaning or save lives? If not, maybe it is better to bite my tongue and preserve our friendship.