The Art of Being Wrong

When we moved in to our house on a cul-de-sac about 10 years ago, one of the first things I noticed, something that irritated me very much was that the neighbors would put their yard clippings and fallen branches on the island in the middle.  As I contemplated this and became more angry, I would move the yard waste to the side of the road (the designated location) and even spoke to one of the neighbors about it.

A couple of years later, after an epiphany that affected all areas of my life, I took a step back.   I pledged that whatever my intuition might tell me, no matter my gut feeling, I would question my assumptions when I was frustrated at circumstances.  In the case of my cul-de-sac, I began to realize that if all the neighbors agreed on this particular strategy for such yard clippings, and I was alone in my outlook, then perhaps I was wrong.  After shifting my perspective I could see that, yes, I was wrong.  Now, none of us likes to be wrong, especially when we’ve taken a strong public stand, but there it was.

In the years since, I’ve seen the value of reconsidering my conclusions at times.  I have come to see we sometimes, when confronted with a different point of view, grit our teeth, dig in, and arm ourselves with research, hyperlinks, and other intellectual armaments to prove our point.  What we fail to see sometimes is that context is important.

Let me say this early on:  There is nothing wrong with making up your own mind and holding strong opinions.  We can all see examples of cases where someone has stood alone, only to be proven correct at a later time.  But most of us aren’t Copernicus or Galileo.   It might be that we have stumbled upon a truth obscured to the rest of the world.  But probably not.

We can save ourselves and others much pain if we are open to the possibility of being wrong sometimes.  (I think those of us in the Myers-Briggs subtype of Intuitive Thinking are most likely to have difficulty with this.)

And there are just so many ways to go wrong!  Occasionally, I’ll review the list of cognitive biases in order to remain humble at how flawed my thinking can be.   There’s confirmation bias, in which we look for information that confirms what we think.  There’s negativity bias, in which we pay more attention to or give more weight to negative experiences rather than positive.   And the very common selective perception.  (Regarding this last one, if I were to tell you that, say, the Ford Fusion is the third-best selling car in the U.S., then you would see more on the road than you did before, confirming this fact I just made up.)

I believe one of the reasons we do this is we let our identities become caught up with our assertions.  Our interest in a issue becomes a position, and once we’ve taken a position, we’re going to defend it.  If I say I believe that X is the best way to approach a problem, I ease toward a stance where X and I become inseparable.  X it is, and that’s that.  If, on the other hand, I suggest X is the best approach based on A, B, and C, I leave myself room to be proven otherwise.

No one wants a leader who is wishy-washy, subject to whatever political or popular wind that blows.  But when someone feels personally threatened by the possibility of saying “I was wrong”, that person is revealing that he or she is out of touch with his or her core being.  We can decide that our core values are non-negotiable (which is fine – that’s what makes them our core), but if we aren’t open to hearing other opinions and perhaps changing our minds based on new information, we are missing out on the possibility of larger lives.  We might also be revealing that we’re not quite as secure in what we believe as we think.

When you find you are wrong and admit it, it’s important not to feel dejected or ashamed.  Those who can stand up and freely say they have come to a different conclusion based on what they have learned are showing a huge strength of ego.  And when you do this, you’ll probably find that others are happy to stand with you.


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