Get comfortable with being wrong
Here's how you can start embracing the joy of having been wrong
Dear Rethinkers, (and to new subscribers, a warm hello!)
This week’s newsletter is on one of my favourite topics – the joy and pain of having been wrong (or being comfortable not getting it right!) As always, I’d love to hear your thoughts and questions in the comments.
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(I’m not holding the book upside down!)
Last week, I went to my daughter’s school for a parent’s evening. Always an ‘interesting’ experience. She’s diligent and wonderfully curious but she gets super stressed when she gets low grades or things wrong. She hates red marks or crosses in her books. (Noooo, please don’t be like me!) Her maths teacher was singing her praises and asked if I had any concerns. “Yes,” I replied. “Please could you teach her how to be wrong?” He gave me a quizzical look and said that in his 20 years of teaching no parent has ever made that request!
I shared how she gets everything right because she ducks out of the harder questions where she is going to have to make mistakes. He admitted I was right. This was all getting very meta at this point. But I was serious. From an early age, we need to be taught that having been wrong is a positive thing (even if we don’t enjoy it). It’s how we learn.
As the Nobel prize-winning behavioural economist Danny Kahneman puts it:
“Finding out that I was wrong is the only way I’m sure that I’ve learned anything. Otherwise, I’m just going around and living in a world that’s dominated by confirmation bias, or desirability bias. And I’m just affirming the things I already think I know.”
Being comfortable with being wrong involves a lot of rethinking:
Rewiring our primary reaction to being wrong from defensiveness to curiosity.
Reframing seeing wrongness from a bad mark or a red x to a valuable data point. To see it like a scientist as collecting evidence.
To see being wrong as a journey, not a painful dead end.
Easy to say but very hard to do until… you separate your ideas from your identity.
I had this powerful rethink moment listening to a conversation betweenand Kahneman. They discuss the important distinction between being wrong and having been wrong. (I’d honestly never thought about the difference and at first thought it was just clever semantics.)
Being wrong feels personal - that’s why we don’t enjoy it. (Dead end)
Having been wrong, is a realization that your idea isn’t right or is incomplete. And that leads to asking why you were wrong or what you still don’t know. (Journey)
I think understanding this distinction is at the heart of what makes some people great thinkers.
So, if you want to get better at understanding or enjoying the benefits of having been wrong, here are three wonderful books I’d recommend reading:
Mistakes Were Made (but Not by Me) - by Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson
Such a great title! This book is a deep dive into why our brains are wired to constantly defend our mistakes. Unpacking self-justification is at the heart of the book. I love this line:
“We need a few trusted naysayers in our lives, critics who are willing to puncture our protective bubble of self-justifications and yank us back to reality if we veer too far off. This is especially important for people in positions of power.”
Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error - by Kathryn Shulz
Kathryn Shulz is a wonderful writer. An etymological takeaway from this book: The Latin word errare¸ meaning “to roam”, gave rise to the English word “error.” So to be wrong, at its root, is to be on an adventure. Shulz writes:
“Being right might be gratifying, but in the end it is static, a mere statement. Being wrong is hard and humbling, and sometimes even dangerous, but in the end it is a journey, and a story.”
How Not To Be Wrong: The Art of Changing Your Mind - by James O’Brien
This is an honest and funny account of what he has changed his mind about, from tattoos to vulnerability. O’Brien, a much-loved radio host, realized he was constantly getting into binary polarizing debates on air on hot topics. He didn’t like it so delved into understanding better ways of thinking. O'Brien writes:
“There is no point having a mind unless you're willing to change it.”
Putting ‘being wrong’ into practice
To start embracing the joy of having been wrong, ask a question in your next meeting or even conversation: “So, what If I’m not right?”
This question invites others to explore new and different possibilities. If someone comes back and reports a different idea or answer, make it a practice to say “Thanks! I was wrong!” It does wonders for trust.
My daughter was not happy that I requested that her maths teacher encourage her to be wrong more. I shared that it was in wrongness, not rightness, that we learn the most. She was not convinced 😊
Finally, I’m still getting a lot of feedback on my newsletter about Redesigning the Workplace - thank you for all the thoughtful and interesting comments. You’ve really got me thinking…
A note from me
I’m really enjoying writing these regular recommendation pieces - I hope you find them useful and insightful. Please see a selection of other recommendations at the bottom of this article. They are freely available to everyone.
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It's interesting to think about status in relation to being wrong. When we are wrong, our status is diminished, which feels visceral. But we also gain status by appearing to be virtuous. So if we repeatedly emphasise the virtue of embracing our wrongness, perhaps that will be a counterbalance to the status lost through our lack of competence.
This resonates with me so much, exactly when it needed to - thanks for sharing.
This insight changes lives (could have changed mine on what I chose to do as a uni student!): ‘.. she gets everything right because she ducks out of the harder questions where she is going to have to make mistakes’
Wonder what it could mean at this stage of my life :)