The Beauty of Being Wrong

Be Wrong

Your face flushes with shame. Your chest constricts. Your stomach turns inward. It feels like you’re backed into a corner or caught in a trap. You know the feeling. Someone has proved you wrong, and now they’re rubbing your face in it.

I hate being wrong. Who doesn’t? It’s embarrassing. It doesn’t particularly matter what it’s about. It could be a political debate. It could be a fight you’re having with your significant other. Or, it could be something silly like a disagreement with a friend over some trivial sports statistic. But the moment they provide irrefutable evidence and you begin to see that the truth of which you were so certain now appears to be an illusion, it can feel like the whole world is caving in. Yeah, I think it’s safe to say that I’m not too fond of being wrong.

But you know what I hate more than being wrong? More than actually being wrong, I hate that I hate being wrong. I hate that I get embarrassed. I hate that it’s such a blow to my ego. I hate that it makes me feel so small. Why? Because it means that I’ve missed out on the beauty of being wrong.

When You Lose, You Win

A while back, I saw a TED talk called, “For Argument’s Sake,” in which philosopher Daniel Cohen presents an interesting idea about arguing. The way we typically think about arguing, he says, is like war. We talk about strategies, defenses, and tactics. It’s militaristic. It’s combative. It’s adversarial. There are winners and losers. There is a problem, however, with using this metaphor. “If argument is war,” says Cohen, “there is an implicit equation of learning with losing.” Cognitively, it is not the winner that gains from the argument; it’s the loser. Because the loser learns something.

The beauty of being wrong is that it’s the gateway to becoming right. Learning starts with being wrong. Knowledge begins with ignorance. Did you ever think about that way? That’s exactly what learning is–replacing old beliefs with new ones. In the end, those who will have learned the most will be those who have admitted to being wrong most often.

So, if losing an argument and admitting to being wrong is so advantageous, why is it so hard? My suspicion is that it’s because most of us aren’t interested in learning. We don’t want the truth. We want certainty. We would rather believe we are right than actually be right. We would rather believe a lie than reveal the frailty of our convictions. We don’t want to admit to others, or to ourselves, that we don’t have it all figured out. The cost of knowledge is pride.

A Posture of Curiosity

I believe that the root of all dissension between people lies in the approach we take to issues and events in our lives. We seek to persuade far more often than we seek to understand. We’re more interested in exerting our power and influence than we are in discovering the truth. When faced with an issue, we look to make a judgment rather than a discovery.

Consider the following items:

  • Teen Abortion
  • Gun Control
  • Gay Marriage
  • School Bullying
  • Affirmative Action

Think about your initial gut reaction to these issues. Is it a question? I’m betting it’s not. I’m betting it’s a statement. Probably an exclamation, but definitely a value judgment. That’s how we tend to approach issues. We are too quick to judge and far too slow to understand.

And it’s not just with political issues. We react this way to everyday issues as well. When your wife tells you that you forgot to get an oil change in your car but you are fairly certain you remember doing it, do you investigate the issue or simply tell her she’s wrong? When your child asks for a new video game to play with his friends, do you listen to his reasons or just say, “No?” When you have a customer who tells you that she can’t afford your product, do you ask her about her situation or do you just continue to talk about its selling points? In everything, it seems we are more interested in talking than listening and in teaching than learning.

What if we adopted a posture of curiosity rather than of criticism? What if we sought to understand rather than to persuade? How much less division might there be? How much more knowledge could we gain? When we all stop thinking we have all the answers, perhaps we’ll actually start getting some answers.

Perhaps you think I’m being too idealistic. Sure, in my utopian vision of the world, we can all approach one another with a genuine desire to learn and maybe we’ll start having more productive discussions and fewer fights. But that’s not actually going to happen, is it? People aren’t going to all of a sudden collectively abandon their egos in exchange for understanding. People are still going to be more convicted, combative, and coercive than they are curious. So, where does that leave you and me? If everyone else is going to approach life close-mindedly, shouldn’t we dig in our heels, hold our ground, and argue dogmatically for our side of the story?

No, I don’t think so. I think even if you are the only one interested in learning and discovery and understanding and truth, you still win. Because you’re still learning. You’re still growing. You’re still becoming more right.

In fact, I think the only way to live with yourself and not adopt a posture of curiosity is believe an illusion. The illusion is that your simple truths and tidy worldview are enough. The illusion is that your side of the story is the story itself. The illusion is that you have nothing left to learn. And, as long as you can continue to convince yourself that all of this is true, I think you’ll be perfectly content.

But I think you’re better than that. I think you know there’s a bigger world out there beyond the four walls of your own mind. I think you know that issues run deeper than they appear at first glance. I think you know that there is always more to learn than there is to teach. I think you know.

So, join me. Let’s start asking questions. We might actually get some answers. Let’s throw pride out the window. We might actually end up standing taller.

Let’s be curious.
Let’s be vulnerable.
Let’s be wrong.

It might just make things right.

Featured image courtesy of raketentim licesned via Creative Commons.


About Douglas E Rice

Douglas E Rice is just a guy who likes to learn stuff.
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