A few months ago, a colleague of mine said ‘Hey John, I really enjoyed your last article. You should write one on being wrong.’ I took this as a compliment. Not only had he read and liked what I’d written, but was now making a request for me to share my thoughts on another topic. I’d made it as a respected blogger!
It wasn’t until a few weeks later that the alternative view dawned on me. Was he saying that because he thought I had some kind of expertise in ‘being wrong’? Or worse still, was it a not-so-subtle attempt at suggesting my last blog had been a load of rubbish?
Whether it was a compliment or a well-disguised insult it certainly got me thinking, and after a few weeks of reading and researching I’ve come to the conclusion that actually, despite the negative press it often receives, being wrong is great. More than great, in fact – being wrong is fundamental to the way we work, the way we learn, and the way we succeed. So i’m going to try and persuade you that I’m right.
Most of us spend a lot of our time being wrong.
Take an average evening in the pub with friends, characterised by spending hours sharing ever-more-honest opinions about the state of the world (and probably the state of some of your friends). Watch carefully, as two interesting things happen.
Firstly, a lot of what is being said – vaguely remembered numbers being presented as cold-hard facts, borrowed opinions from a journalist or a colleague – is patently wrong.
Secondly, the rest of the group let them get away with it, particularly in Britain. We don’t like to correct people, nodding along, not wanting to offend, maybe politely suggesting a counter-point but saying it in a way that suggests we actually agree. Sometimes, we’ll even go as far as deliberately lying to avoid an awkward social situation: ‘You know Alan, right, the tall guy from Coventry?’ Everyone else nods, so you go along with it, gradually piecing together Alan’s life and looks from the next 3 minutes of gossip about him and his career-suicide email.
I once had a ‘debate’ in a pub about the injury record of Arsenal striker Theo Walcott, with increasingly ludicrous statistics being thrown about from both sides, knowing that they were totally unprovable if ever challenged – which they weren’t. Football is, of course, a great example of how often we’re wrong, and also how our wrongness is caused by being blinded by tribal biases – as proven by the continued success of bookmakers everywhere.
These strange social traits can equally be found in the peace and quiet of your own home too – anyone who lives with anyone knows that being wrong is a common part of household life. In reality though, if you analyse the ‘discussions’ you have with your loved ones or lived ones, I think you’d find that a very small part of the argument is about the original point. We tend to realise we’re wrong pretty quickly, but hate admitting it, so most arguments tend to become a farcical game of cover-up, making increasingly irrelevant points and dredging up old gripes to avoid having to admit you made a mistake in the first place. Eventually, many days later, there might be a slight admission that the other person had a point after all, but it’s usually deeply hidden in another conversation and accompanied by a number of caveats. Or maybe that’s just how I do it…
Maybe the hardest place to admit when we’re wrong is at work. We’re getting paid to be there, expected to be professional, have a hard-earned reputation to uphold… What will people think if we admit to being fallible? This fear of being wrong is tackled by Rory Sutherland in his great article on the strategy that won Eurovision, where he discusses defensive decision making, an inherent bias that affects almost everything we do:
‘It is better to do something distinctive than to do something conventionally good … [but] the reason more people don’t try this is simple. It takes courage. When you fail conventionally you get sympathy; when you fail unconventionally you get blamed.’
In fact, we often don’t even consider that we may be wrong, believing our ideas to be far better than everyone else’s. Dan Ariely beautifully describes this as the ‘Ikea Effect’, placing a greater value on ideas and objects that we have created, against those that have come from elsewhere.
So we’re wrong. A lot. But why is this good?
In short, being wrong – and knowing that you’re wrong – means that you’ve learnt something new. You’ve learnt something new, and can now do it better. If you always believe you’re right in what you do and how you do it, you’ve got very little motivation to change and improve, accepting the status quo and passing up opportunities to be better. In contrast, being wrong prompts an element of discovery, and as the wonderful Maria Popova of @BrainPicker fame asserts, ‘it’s more important to understand than to be right‘. Think about the most interesting people you know. I imagine they’ll be linked by a common trait of inquisitiveness, wanting to learn more, and spending more time listening than talking. As the saying goes, to be interesting, be interested.
I’d even argue that the longer you’re wrong, the better it feels when you finally realise, giving rise to those phenomenal ‘eureka!’ moments inventors and innovators around the world and through history have become famous for. Innovation is built on being wrong, many, many times over, but having the courage and interest to keep going until you’re right. As BBC Future wrote recently in their article: ‘Why bad inventions are good’:
Before the iPod, there was the Listen Up mp3 player; before Facebook, there was Friendster, and before DVDs, there were Laserdiscs. Blame timing, bad luck or the human foibles of their inventors – the point is that these turkeys made it a little bit easier for those that followed. In fact, this is the story of invention. While we hold up our visionaries and their lightbulb moments, the day-to-day reality of inventing is continual, depressing defeat. British inventor James Dyson, for instance, points out that it took him 5,127 prototypes to develop his first bagless vacuum cleaner… Every invention that changed the world was built on the work of a thousand failed inventors, and a thousand failed ideas.’
Being wrong is hard to do, both in terms of realising it and admitting it. Practice makes perfect though – and here’s three ways to help you fail more effectively:
1. Ask more questions
The first, and still the best piece of advice I was given when I started my career. (That, and ‘stop wearing black ties with red shirts’). Being inquisitive will help to explore avenues you may not have previously thought of, but more than that, it’s the bedrock of having a test and learn approach to what you do. If I’m allowed two Rory Sutherland quotes in one article: ‘The best managers don’t get every decision right, but they make decisions. It’s not about being right, it’s about knowing its worth testing’. A healthy way to approach any new situation is to presume you don’t know the answer, and then prove yourself wrong.
2. Ask what the opposite view is, and why
In his TED talk and Book, Eli Pariser introduced the concept of the online ‘Filter Bubble’ we all live in now, only being served content and information by people like us, creating an ever deminishing view of the rest of the world that doesn’t happen to buy the same things as us on Amazon, or follow the same people as us on Twitter. He recommends a number of practical things you can do (mainly based around managing your web history) but I think it’s simpler than that. Just ask yourself ‘what would the opposite view be?’ Trying to understand the other side of the argument (and really understanding, not just reading or listening) will certainly help to give you a more balanced perspective, and arguably come up with a more fully formed approach to whatever it is you’re mulling over. The true test of this is taking the referee’s view into account when he’s just awarded a penalty against your team…
3. Swallow your pride
As Maria Popova said far better than I could in her ‘7 lessons from 7 years’ article, ‘allow yourself the uncomfortable luxury of changing your mind … about a topic, an ideology, or, above all, yourself‘. Saying ‘I don’t know’, but then finding out and doing something better is far more appealing then pretending to have an answer and then spending weeks following the wrong path, in the hope that things will work out in the end. Yet most of us choose the latter option, preferring to profess an opinion based on nothing at all rather than give the honest answer. Swallow your pride. Not only will it give you the chance to learn something new, but in the long run, people will appreciate you for your honesty rather than questioning your judgements, and you’ll spend a lot less time worrying about whether something is going to work out ok.
So that’s my take on being wrong, and I don’t really mind if you agree with me or not. It’s a stigma that most of us are taught in school, moving from the toddler world of play and discovery to a uniformed world of marking and grades. Retaining that child-like thirst for knowledge will stand you in good stead, and may even help you discover the Next Big Thing.
Oh, and England are *definitely* going to win the World Cup.