A few years ago, an acquaintance told me he’d just read a book he thought I’d enjoy. “It’s called ‘Being Wrong,’ ” he said.
I laughed and asked why he thought I’d like it.
In a soft, serious voice he said, “Because I have the sense you don’t mind being wrong.”
Though I’d never thought of it before, I realized he was right. I don’t mind being wrong.
The book is by Kathryn Schulz, now a Pulitzer Prize-winning writer for the New Yorker. In a compelling narrative on “wrongology,” Schulz gives examples of mistakes we’re all familiar with – optical illusions, the failures of memory – and then moves on to anecdotes from science, history and politics. She begins by pointing out that most people love to be right, and hate being wrong.
Schulz shows, as every good scientist understands, that much of what we think we know is nothing more than belief; every theory is right until it’s superseded by another. And, we can only be wrong in retrospect. It’s in those moments, when we look back and realize we’ve erred, that we grow the most.
I’ve stopped recommending this book – elegantly written, flawlessly argued, crafted with illuminating and engaging stories – to friends since too many of them said they didn’t like it. That makes me want to unfriend them. Instead, I just mutter to myself, They’re wrong.
Reading the book validated my own willingness to face up to mistakes. And gave me permission to (try to) stop feeling ashamed when I make them.
As an author and essayist, it’s long been my job to offer opinions others will disagree with. When you write for publication you are exposed. You put your vulnerabilities on parade, expose your soft underbelly. You hope readers will be gentle with you. Sometimes they are.
The truth is, I’ve gotten lots of lucky breaks, so many that I often feel like an imposter, valued above my actual worth and worried that eventually everyone will find out I don’t know enough, am not smart enough, am, in fact, a big fat phony.
In the fancy-pants college I attended – always believing that someone had made a mistake in admitting me – I learned to cover up insecurity with bravado. My opinions were forceful and certain, even when wrong, because that’s what I thought confidence looked like. The less sure I was, the more likely I’d be to dig in. I spent hours telling friends that “Paradise Lost” was the most boring book ever written. Until, in class, the professor showed us how Milton’s Satan is one of the best characters in the history of English literature. An epiphany: I didn’t like the book because I didn’t understand it.
Often the things – and people – I first disliked fell into that category. Then I met a man who showed grace in acknowledging error, and taught me the value of a sincere apology. He modeled how, when you admit mistakes or change your mind, you are not weakened but instead emerge stronger. It’s liberating to be able to say, honestly and with humility, I was wrong and I’m sorry. It’s also an argument stopper; only a jerk will argue with a genuine apology.
The best leaders know this. Admitting mistakes takes a boatload of confidence. Bad behavior, I’ve come to believe, is often the result of fear. Confident people have little to fear and value transparency; they are often courageous in exposing the ways they’ve changed their minds. They fess up to mistakes, rethink, and regroup. They know how to embrace being wrong.
As I’ve matured, I’ve become allergic to certainty. Each day I’m aware of how much I don’t know, and I try to remain intellectually nimble and springy. When readers praise me for being “brave,” it makes me cringe a little – not for myself but for them. What are they afraid of saying or putting into writing? What do they try to hide in their own prose? Why does being honest and self-implicating seem scary to them?
The people I most admire are both fearless and gentle. They pose questions that lead to conversations; they don’t lecture or hector. Instead of offering advice, they wonder about choices made. Too often in national discourse, social media, and private chats we don’t listen to each other. Conversations can be like games of jacks, with no real interaction, and a palpable impatience while waiting to take one’s turn.
So, while like every other human and some dogs, I enjoy being right, I’ve learned not to mind being wrong.