The Gift of Being Wrong


Anger seems to be a common emotion these days. If you aren’t angry about something you must not be paying attention. It is hard to watch a news broadcast and not feel like things are going in the wrong direction and it must be somebody’s fault. Who should receive the blame depends on who is doing the talking. While there is great difference of opinion on who is responsible, all sides share something in common, they are confident they know who to blame.


One result of this confident finger pointing is that the most significant problems never get solved. And even when problems do go away or subside from natural causes, the divisions created from all the accusations make it impossible to work constructively to solve the next problem. Societies and organizations have stopped listening to those who disagree. Apparently, listening carefully and acknowledging positive elements in other opinions has become a sign of weaknesses. Labeling the other side in the most negative terms possible is the preferred method to elevate your own argument.


A couple of time management rules I have adopted from the opportunity to live in and travel to a variety of countries: Never get in a line that is not moving and never engage in a serious conversation if no one is open to changing their minds. Too many lengthy, emotional, and often relationship-damaging discussions devolve into louder and louder expressions of the same arguments to a crowd that possess no interest in hearing your ideas from the start.


Not surprisingly, Daniel Kahneman, the Noble Prize winning scientist who spent his career studying how we think, provides a different example. Adam Grant in Think Again tells the story of Kahneman telling him that he was surprised by one of Grant’s research findings. But rather than demonstrate any regret or concern over his surprise, Kahneman broke into a big grin and said, “That was wonderful. I was wrong.” When Grant asked him about his positive reaction, he shared that he genuinely enjoys discovering he was wrong because it means he is now less wrong.


Grant attributes the difficulty most of us have to changing our minds to “attachment.” We struggle to separate our past selves from our present selves and our ideas from our identity. When we detach from our past selves we are more likely to embrace new ways of thinking and acting. And if our identity is tied to our practices and beliefs we are less likely to accept better ideas and approaches when they are presented.


Kahneman’s core research has been around encouraging us to slow down and not fall for a number of thinking fallacies. However, Kahneman is still often described as a quick thinker. He admits the speed at which he changes his mind drives his collaborators crazy. However, his speed doesn’t lead him to make thinking mistakes because he remains open to a better idea appearing at any moment. He said, “My attachment to my ideas is provisional. There is no unconditional love for them.”


There are some foundational beliefs and values that over time we know are true. If we woke up every day to question those convictions, our lives would lack direction and purpose. The best way to apply those foundational beliefs is where openness to learning proves most valuable. Most of us when asked the question, “if the approach or perspective you have on this topic is wrong, would you like to know that?” would respond “of course.” Yet if we examine our response whenever we are challenged to rethink our viewpoint, we probably see a complete lack of enthusiasm for being shown a better way.


The problem becomes even more severe with greater success. This is the reason that scientists, writers, and musicians often stagnate after experiencing success early in their careers. They end up defending or reproducing their initial success for the rest of their lives.


Determining the rightness of our ideas and approaches requires humility and maturity. We also can’t expect others to be open to change if we never model it ourselves. A joyful response to being shown the possibility of a better way is the first step towards creating true dialogue that leads to solving the problems we all care about.