Kathryn Schulz identifies as a “wrongologist” – a person who studies why sometimes we’re wrong against all logic and rational reasoning and evidence to the contrary staring us in the eye, how we behave when we’re wrong and the insights these observations give us about human nature (Kathryn Schulz: On Being Wrong, Ted.com 2011).

Here are the main points of her talk (which is actually a really nicely delivered talk – she received a standing ovation at the end of it):

  • We understand being wrong in the abstract – logically, we know that we’ve all been wrong before, but we live life as though there’s nothing we could be wrong about at this present instant in time.
  • When we’re wrong, we feel like we’re right (Kathryn calls this ‘error blindness’). It’s not until we know we’re wrong that we feel all the negative feelings associated with being wrong.
  • Culturally, negative feelings associated with being wrong are instilled in us from an early age in school
  • There are three assumptions people who are wrong but think they’re right make about everyone else around them to explain the dissonance in beliefs:
  1. Everyone who disagrees is ignorant – they lack information or perspective that we are privy to.
  2. Everyone who disagrees is an idiot – they have access to everything we have access to, but they’re too stupid to come to the same conclusions.
  3. Everyone who disagrees is evil – they know “the truth” (read: “our truth”) but are deliberately distorting it to accomplish a hidden agenda.

She concluded her talk with the idea that it’s okay to be wrong, quoting an ancient philosopher who said, post-translation from latin, “I err, therefore I am.”

I don’t have a problem with being wrong.

But here is a problem that I see. If your approach in your professional life is that you could be wrong, you’ll never go anywhere. In our work culture, confidence, and aggressive confidence at that, is celebrated. In our professional world, the meek and demure will never inherit the penthouse floor nor the coveted top building office. And yes, we’re also taught this from an early age in school. Who’s the kid that everyone listens to, including the teacher? The loud kid. Who’s the kid that everyone follows on the playground? The loud kid. If the loud kid says he’s right, who’s going to argue with him? Not the quiet kids. When the loud kid is proven wrong, who’s going to say next time, “Maybe you’re wrong again”? Unless you have a loud-kid-in-training……. No one. This teaches the powerful lesson that if you’re vocal and confident about your beliefs and what you want, people will follow you – which is very gratifying.

The minute the loud kid wavers, the next loud kid will step up and take his spot.

My point is, it’s all very well and good to tell us that it’s okay to be wrong, but the only ones who can admit it without fear of failure in the future tense are the untouchables – those who’re so high up on the corporate ladder that they have few peers to worry about jostling them out of their very comfortable perch.

And unfortunately too, politicians are not untouchable – a point that irritates me because every time a politician takes a stance on something, he’s never, ever, allowed to renounce his position without media backlash lamenting his or her flip-flopping on issues.

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