Wrong wrong wrong wrong wrong

This topic came to mind as I was hashing out some ideas about potential instructional activities (that may or may not come to pass, but I’ll keep you informed.) It’s amazingly simple, but I couldn’t count the number of people I’ve met that would probably benefit from taking it to heart. In short: it’s okay to be wrong.

Well, actually it’s completely unavoidable. We’re human – we’re fallible, and the highest likelihood is that we’re wrong about something, every day or our lives. I mean, think about it: if we weren’t, we’d be omniscient. Maybe that’s not quite right (heh!) because we could simply not know something without necessarily being wrong about it, but it’s safe to say that all of us harbor mistaken beliefs, impressions, and even what we have been specifically told by authorities. The main point that I want to make, however, is that this is okay.

I believe we actually start off with the idea, some fundamental part of our brains that evolved into us. We have no doubts about having an internal reward system about being right, and honestly, it’s not hard to fathom that this is useful to us, both from a simple survival standpoint of not mistaking a bear for a rabbit, but also in the tribal sense that someone with more answers, more dependable information, is undeniably an asset to the tribe. However, there is more than a suspicion in my head that we have an internal ‘cringe’ system, for want of a better descriptor, regarding the opposite: we feel bad about being wrong. Not just in embarrassment in front of other, judgy people, but perhaps only within ourselves, and this is even reflected in trivial activities like brain teasers.

And then, of course, our cultures reinforce this, often in fierce ways. Most of the schooling structure in the US (the only one I can confidently speak of, though I’m sure others are the same,) builds on this, at a time when peer judgment is at its peak and our classmates will seize every opportunity to use this against us, though granted, such judgment is more likely to be wielded against our manner of dress and other such nonsense. It’s a shame, because we’re in school to learn, an open admission that we’re not going to know everything and the point is to change this as much as possible (admittedly, schools have progressed seriously along these lines since I attended.) An answer of, “I don’t know,” is/was too often an invitation for mockery, scolding, or at the very least, a disappointed look. It was and remains an apparent admission of stupidity, of ignorance, of failure, often encouraging on its own the wild guess, the misplaced confidence, and even the dogged insistence.

There’s even the idea that any decision that we made in the past, regardless of our knowledge, maturity, or motivations at the time, must have been rational, thorough, and ultimately immutable – changing our minds in the face of new information or the revealing of mistaken impressions just isn’t done; it’s not hard to imagine how damaging and backwards this is, nor do we even have to imagine it, because the evidence surrounds us every day.

But it’s all nonsense. We’re going to be wrong about something, we’re going to simply not know about something, all of the time – again, we’re human. And the bare truth is, just about everyone recognizes this, and very few people expect us to be right all of the time. In other words, when we’re concerned over being wrong, we’re responding more to the inner demons than to any realistic reaction from others. We’ve been conditioned, externally and likely internally, to expect negative consequences, but such things rarely take place when we, openly and non-defensively, simply admit either ignorance or our mistake. “I don’t know,” and, “I’m sorry, that was wrong,” do not earn us the backlash we often believe they would.

More importantly, they often earn us respect. Someone that owns their mistake, that apologizes honestly, that simply has the confidence to say, “Ya got me,” is usually seen as forthright, honest, and commendable. We’re all familiar with people and situations where this simply wouldn’t happen, and we recognized that someone was too emotionally afraid of seeming wrong or mistaken or unknowledgeable; we didn’t view them favorably, and weren’t fooled by their false confidence, insistence, or even belligerence, were we? Likely, we considered them petty and immature.

Then there’s the damaging aspect of issuing false information or misplaced confidence, both short and long term. Initially of course, any wrong information may or may not lead to consequences, but in the longer term, anyone that catches us out, that eventually discovers that we were incorrect, is now judging us much more harshly than they ever would have if we’d simply admitted our inability in the first place – and likely remembering it a lot longer, too. Any later statements that we make, regardless of how well we might actually know them, may be considered just as inaccurate, automatically – it’s unfortunate, but that’s the way people are. Just one instance of bowing to insecurity may create a label that we don’t want to wear and potentially don’t even deserve.

We might consider a set of criteria for ‘owning up,’ or not, and in doing so find out that we don’t even need such a thing. When is it necessary to admit to ignorance or mistake? When should we bite the bullet and say, “I’m wrong?” Well, if the matter is important, with serious consequences, then it’s obviously important not to be misleading, not to impart false information, not to be seen as someone who knows the answers; this is far too likely to lead to trouble, even danger. But if the matter is trivial, with little to no consequence to attach to it, then who the hell cares? No one worth their salt, as they say, will even bother worrying about whether you know for sure or not, so go ahead and admit ignorance – it’s not a big deal. So, that doesn’t leave many places where pretending authority is even useful.

I occasionally do classroom-style instruction, and one of the things that I often tell my students is not to be afraid to ask, to admit that they don’t grasp the concept, to speak out and even correct me as needed. The first part is, that’s the only way that I’m going to know that my point, or approach, or method, isn’t working as well as intended; that feedback is valuable. The second part is, I virtually guarantee that there isn’t just one person in the room who needs the help, and you almost become the hero for speaking what’s on multiple people’s minds – especially if someone else has anxiety issues.

But here’s one more positive consequence of admitting to ignorance, because that little bit of embarrassment that we feel, that qualm about not having an answer, is the thing that will make us seek that answer out, to have a solid and positive response the next time we’re asked. If we lie, we have to stick with it in case we’re caught out (which of course won’t help anyone’s view of us,) but just admitting to not knowing only has to happen that once. “I don’t know,” is a perfectly acceptable answer – but adding on, “so let’s find out,” or, “I’ll have an answer for you tomorrow,” is vastly better, beneficial to everyone as well as making you look responsible. Quite simply, it’s better to work with people than compete against them.

I won’t deny that there will remain those who will take any admission of ignorance or mistake and harp on it, using it to try and embarrass or discount us – generally acting exactly the way we might fear. I shouldn’t have to tell you that anyone that petty isn’t worth our time or attention, and obviously has some issues; their judgment is only worth what we give it. Embarrassment is an internal thing – we can only be embarrassed if we allow ourselves to be, and if it involves simply being human, well, that’s unavoidable. Anyone that expects us to be infallible, to be superhuman (or, more likely, is simply in search of easy judgments in order to mask their own insecurities,) doesn’t provide any useful feedback to us and can safely be ignored.