The Subtle Art of Being Wrong

by The Skeptical Hippie

This piece appeared as part of a regular column in the Fall 2019 Edition of the PEN

You are wrong. It’s not a pleasant thing to hear (or read), is it? You probably feel a bit taken aback. Hey now, Skeptical Hippie, you may be thinking. You don’t know me. Just what gives you the right to tell me I’m wrong?

Here’s the thing though: it’s okay to be wrong. I’m also wrong. We have a gut reaction to

Everybody makes mistakes. Photo: Craig Steffan via Pixabay

being told we’re wrong, but we need to get over that negative association and embrace being wrong. Figuring out where and how we went wrong is one of the most reliable ways we have to get things a little bit more right.

Believe me, as someone who grew up as a complete teacher’s pet, this wasn’t a concept I embraced easily, but over the years I’ve gotten more comfortable with the idea. Partly this is just experience – I’ve been wrong many, many times. Sometimes about trivial things, sometimes about things I thought were really important.

Sometimes, finding out I was wrong was embarrassing, and sometimes it was really difficult, making me confront who I am as a person, but ultimately I’m happy I confronted my wrong-ness instead of clinging to a belief I couldn’t be confident in, or continuing down a road that didn’t leave anywhere.

confused-880735_640Perhaps more importantly, however, I’ve also come to realize that being wrong is an essential part of innovation and progress. You may have heard the term “failing forward,” which is basically a trendy way to say learn from your mistakes.

In business and research, it is a key part of moving forward and finding solutions that work. As Thomas Edison is reported to have said, “I have not failed, I have simply found ten thousand ways that do not work.”

This is closely related to the concept of “rapid iteration and prototyping”. It sounds very buzzwordy, I know, but it basically just means trying a bunch of stuff to see what’s promising.

Suppose you have a problem to solve, and two groups of people to help you solve it. Take one group, and tell them to really carefully study the problem, thinking it through from all angles before deciding on what they think the best solution is. Take the other group, and tell them to just try a bunch of stuff, or come up with as many ideas as they can in a short period of time.

Most of the time, in fact, nearly all the time, the second group will solve the problem better, faster, and in more different ways. This is the idea of rapid iteration. It isn’t always the best approach to every problem, but it is a powerful problem solving tool because it helps take away the fear of being wrong. If your idea is just one of a dozen, who cares if it isn’t perfect? You’re just throwing stuff out there. This lets you be more creative, and more willing to let something go if it doesn’t turn out to work.

Real-life problem solving is a mix of the two approaches, but when we’re stuck it’s often helpful to try out the second approach. You can’t know what works until you try it, and you can’t try it until you’ve had the idea.

Okay, perhaps I’ve convinced you to be less afraid of being wrong, but why am I writing about it here? What does it have to do with world peace or environmental sustainability?

My answer would be that fear of being wrong actually holds activists back from a lot of productive discussions, and sets people with good intentions working against each other more often than it should. We tend to surround ourselves with like-minded people and this can lead to getting stuck in an echo chamber, having an “us vs them” mentality, and generally not being as effective at tackling complex problems like climate change as we could be.

How many times have you been part of a conversation, online or in-person, where someone chimes in with some variation of “what we really need to doing is. . . .?” It’s happened to be a lot. I’ve even been the one saying it quite a few times, and I still stand by some of the things I’ve asserted this way. Sometimes it leads to useful re-focusing and taking productive steps forward.

Unfortunately, though, sometimes it just leads to people falling into camps. What we really need to do is change policies at a government level! What we really need to do is forget about politicians and focus on changing individual behaviour!

See what I mean? At the risk of sounding like a hypocrite, I have a “what we really need to do” statement of my own: what we really need to do is try as many things as we can that have a reasonable chance of making a difference, and get over our fear of being wrong. Try it and see what happens. Do more of what works, for as long as it works. Accept that what you think will work might not turn out to be the best idea, and that’s okay. Be able to see the successes of other ideas. Celebrate success wherever it comes from, and never stop trying.

It’s also good practice to remember that what is “right” can change over time and in different situations. When most homes were heated with oil, switching to natural gas was an obvious “right” approach to save energy and fossil fuels, but as buildings get more and more efficient, and electricity grids get greener and greener, natural gas is no longer always the most sustainable choice. That doesn’t mean everyone who bought a high-efficiency furnace before the year 2000 was wrong to do so, but it should inform a homeowner’s decision today.

I’m not claiming any of this is easy. If “right” changes across situations and over time, and sometimes goes against what our intuition or preconceptions tell us makes sense, it can be even harder to admit when we’re wrong. What I am claiming is that being open to this approach is worth while, and I challenge you to take a moment and think. Is there something in your life that you changed your mind about? Is there an opinion you have that other people you like and respect disagree with? What if you’re wrong? I’m not saying you are. I don’t know what your opinions are, and we might be in perfect agreement!

What I’m saying is that it will be good, for you, for the people you interact with, and even for the world in general, if you take a bit of time to reflect on the possibility, ask yourself what that would look like, and practice being comfortable with the fact that being wrong is something that happens to everyone, and is an important part of making progress.


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