Imperfection is one of the greatest and most under appreciated geniuses of the human experience.
As more people let free their ideas, beliefs, and opinions—even at the risk that they may turn out to be wrong—the sum total of each wrong idea strengthens the tug of progress. Experiments, trials, errors, mistakes, and stumbles are the things that move the human race forward. For every advancement we take for granted—be it technological, commercial, philosophical, religious, scientific, artistic—we have to thank those individuals who presented their new and unorthodox ideas despite the real and imagined risks of ridicule.
Importantly, we also have to thank those people those whose ideas failed.
In the abstract, we’re all fine with the idea that people make mistakes. It’s axiomatic that “nobody’s perfect.” We love to talk about Thomas Edison and his many attempts to make the light bulb work. But the standards we apply outwardly differ strikingly to those we apply introspectively. The willingness to be proven wrong is not a widely shared trait, and that’s too bad. The all-too-common paralyzing desire to never be wrong is neither good for society nor the individual. The most successful people in almost every walk of life in this world are not necessarily those who have superhuman qualities, but those who are willing to be proven wrong. The willingness to risk being wrong is one of the most striking qualities found in powerful and positive people.
Until you get comfortable with being wrong, you’ll only live a fraction of your life. The space of “rightness” is small, and it doesn’t last very long.
But somewhere in our development we begin to fear being wrong. In spite of all evidence to the contrary, we get the horrible idea that the way to be successful is to be right all the time.
For most people, the fear is a lifetime in the making, but I believe it starts early. For a long time the majority of information taught in schools to the youngest of ages could be categorized as absolute information. Two plus two always equals four; five times five always equals twenty-five; “apple” is always spelled A-P-P-L-E; and so on. If your answer to “What is the capitol of California?” is anything other than “Sacramento”, you’re just wrong, and there’s no compromise. Once we’ve throughly saturated our kids with data, we compound the problem by rewarding solely those kids whose “rights” columns have more tallies than their “wrongs” columns.
Of course, many things in life have absolute answers and have to be taught as such. But the best teachers also create space for kids to experiment.
They let kids explore.
Most importantly, they allow kids to develop confidence with struggle. It turns out that the problem solvers of our world love struggle. The illusiveness of “the answer” doesn’t stymie them. It invigorates them. To them, if the last ten attempts failed, the next one is more likely to succeed. And if the last twenty attempts failed, the next one will almost surely succeed.
A very simple example of this happens when a teacher or parent stops midway through a book and asks the child to predict what happens next. Of course, most of the time the child will not correctly predict the next juncture of the story, but the child has just exercised an important analytical part of their brain and learned something that will stay with them the rest of their life.
The child has just learned that it can be fun to be completely wrong.
While sophisticated abstract thinking admittedly takes time to develop (though, make no mistake, even the youngest of kids engage in abstract thought), other social cues apart from formal education also come into play. Sally hears Amy whisper that Katie is “stupid” because she missed an easy word on her spelling test. Sam watches his mom and dad get in a fight and refuse to apologize even though they both were wrong. Todd’s friends on the school bus, taking cues from their parents and SportsCenter, make fun of the guy who missed the game-winning shot in last night’s basketball game.
Our life experiences teach us to block and seal off every vulnerability, while calling attention to our qualities that we believe are well fortified. Rather than feeling empowered to take risks, we sink back.
It’s no different than the hundreds of other things we do to appear invincible.
That guy you knew in high school who to this day spends all his time pumping iron in the gym, whose validation in life is his enormous truck and the women he’s pressured to sleep with him, and who can’t leave a bar unless he’s been in a fight with someone (we’re all still reminded of this guy in our Facebook Newsfeed)—he is immature in basically the same way.
He cannot tolerate feeling vulnerable. His strength is a mask for his weakness.
Again, many right answers are important. And some things have to be done correctly (like building a bridge or complying with the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure). But the desire to seek truth and the willingness to be wrong are not inconsistent ideas. Even with bridges, it’s not as if there is only one way to go about it. Think about how many varieties of bridge you’ve seen in your lifetime. Each one of them began with engineers and architects who brainstormed, made rough drafts, judgment calls, and mistakes. The collective tinkering, refining, starting over, going back, refining, tinkering, starting over, and on again lead to the finished product that is an unmitigated marvel. Without the willingness to be wrong, fewer ideas get suggested—and fewer ideas are usually worse ideas.
How do we fix this problem—that is, our cultural fear of being wrong? I have a few suggestions, and I welcome your input—and criticism :).
On a personal level, first of all, it helps to realize that you and everyone around you already are probably wrong about a lot more things than you realize. Let’s start with just a few popular misconceptions:
- Noah did not bring two of every animal on the ark;
- Touching a baby bird will not cause its mother to abandon it;
- Most of your heat does not go out your head;
- You don’t catch a cold by not wearing a coat;
- Virtually no one thought the Earth was flat during Christopher Columbus’s time, and Columbus was not the first European to discovery America (and for that matter everything positive you ever heard about Christopher Columbus is wrong);
- Americans did not lose a single military battle in Vietnam (that includes the Tet Offensive, which we decisively won);
- We do not use only 10% of our brains;
Once you get comfortable with the idea that you and everyone you know is already wrong about many things, being wrong about a few more begins to appear less daunting.
Parents when they are wrong or do something wrong need to apologize to each other and to their kids. Parents make mistakes, and they don’t know everything. And there is nothing wrong with that. When you apologize in front of your child, you teach your child that he or she can feel comfortable not being perfect.
Your child doesn’t have to think you’re perfect to think you’re great.
In schools, we need to identify better ways of rewarding rather than punishing kids for taking risks that don’t work out. We need to instill admiration not just for scientists and philosophers who made discoveries and who were right, but also for those scientists and philosophers who turned out to be wrong.
We should quit reading books and watching films whose characters are always right and never wrong. There’s way too much of this.
And we need to have this conversation a lot more. Being wrong is not the poison pill most people imagine. It is a healthy and necessary part of the human experience. Take risks. Be wrong.
And read this quote everyday:
It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat. — Teddy Roosevelt