A Tough Time Being Wrong

When I was in my twenties, I’d know when I was right. Other peoples’ observations were just their opinions and they clearly couldn’t see or weren’t taking into account all the facts. I certainly wasn’t always completely right, but I was never absolutely wrong.

One day when I was 19, a group of people explained to me that I was just dead wrong in my perception of why I did a certain thing. I explained that they didn’t know me well enough and that I was correct. Their response was stubborn and blind. They just said, “Give it up!” There were eight of them and one of me so I tried to let it go.

30 minutes later, as I walked down the street, what they said suddenly seemed so obviously true that it made my legs weak. I stopped and sat right down at the curb until I could feel the shakiness leave my legs – those people had been right, I was absolutely wrong.

That was the last time I was never able to know I was right. And with that experience I stumbled on to a treacherous path of self-discovery.

Kathryn Schulz, in her book, Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margins of Error, takes the whole issue of being wrong and explores it in all its rich historical, philosophical and psychological details. Hers is the most balanced look at rightness and wrongness that any non-philosopher could want. She is entertaining, easy to follow, poses provoking questions and suggests fascinating answers; the kind that start to influence the rest of your life in interesting ways.

One of her key points is that we need errors to help us learn. If we can’t be open to alternatives, if we don’t dare explore possible dead ends, we limit our growth. That is one of the premises of coaching; risk making mistakes to learn what to try next. Discover what we don’t like or do well so that we can correct our course and make another effort.

But if we feel we can’t afford to be wrong, if we can’t afford to rethink what we have believed is the truth, then we’re likely to block realities that are right in front of our eyes and ears. The only way to be truly wrong is to not learn. Now that is an interesting idea, but it may be wrong; I’ll keep my eyes open and see if I can find any evidence to the contrary.