On the beauty of wrongness

Augustine wrote “fallor ergo sum”: I err, therefore, I am.

Last night, when I got home from campus, my daughter came downstairs all in a mood. And, let me write, that’s always a great way to start the evening! Anyhow, she is taking an AP English class this year in high school. One of the assessments she has every week or so is a “timed write.” Her teacher gives the class an article, assigns a specific style of writing and then gives the students the entire class period to write their submission based on the article. Tonight she recounted how she made a “stupid mistake” on her most recent attempt. Apparently, as she told it, she used an example from “fiction” – some television show or movie – which is a major no-no for these timed writes. “Only real examples from the real world, not fake ones” she is told by her teacher. Fair enough. But it took me fifteen to twenty minutes to get her to relax, understand it’s not a big issue and just remember to not make that mistake the next time. But, when she went to bed, I suspect it was still burning her up a bit. “I’m so stupid for making that mistake!” or “I know better than that! Geez!” I know my own students – past and present and future, I’m sure – feel and say the same thing about themselves when they do poorly on a case writeup. Making these kinds of mistakes leaves most of us upset with ourselves. We don’t like being wrong. It feels so wrong. Ask yourself, how easy is it for you to say out loud, “I was wrong.” Makes your body ache even saying it in your head, let alone at a meeting, to your spouse, to your best friend. I can’t be wrong. It’s wrong to be wrong.

And, why does it feel wrong? It feels that way because, over time, society has identified being wrong with being stupid, shameful, ignorant, deceitful. Mistakes are embarrassing and deflating. They are to be avoided at nearly all costs. Nobody celebrates being wrong. I ask a question in class about a case and only one or two hands out of 60 go up. Why only the two? Because the others don’t want to be wrong. They don’t want to look like they’re stupid. They don’t want to say something that their classmates will laugh at or think is strange, odd, inaccurate or a dozen other unflattering adjectives. So, the hands stay down, the mouths remain shut and the hope rises for an easy question where the risk of “wrongness” is much lower. And, this isn’t reserved to the youth of America either! Us seasoned adults are prone to the same thing too.

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The big problem is that our whole concept of being wrong is, well, wrong. We need to be wrong. Yes, I really did just write that. WE NEED TO BE WRONG!

Being wrong is what makes us so right. As Kathryn Schulz wrote in Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error, some of our most treasured characteristics are born in wrongness. We are empathetic toward others because we have made those mistakes too so we understand how it might have happened. We are optimistic about a particular situation because we have experienced mistakes or seen others make similar mistakes but we got back up on our feet, recovered and moved on. We are courageous because we have been in risky situations – professional and personal – but were able to get out of the jam we were in and end up doing just fine. Without being wrong, we couldn’t have these very honorable traits.

As well, if we didn’t make mistakes, we couldn’t advance our cognitive self either. You can’t get smart without being wrong first. Probably without being wrong a lot first. In elementary school, my daughter would bring home half-sheets of paper with multiplication tables on it. Three times every other number. Four times every other number. Rows and rows, every week. Her assignment was to get through the whole list in some set amount of time. We’d stand by our microwave – which has a timer on it – and I’d set it to that predetermined time – two minutes let’s say. And, I’d start asking all the combinations. Over time, she got to a point where she really was always right on every question. But, she certainly did not start out that way. She would get most wrong. But, I’d point out her “wrongness” and then we’d do it again. And, she’d often get it wrong again but would eventually get it firmly set in her head. Now she is so much better at multiplication than even I am – which, granted, isn’t necessarily saying an awful lot but still great.

Each of you needs to be wrong. You need to be. You need to push yourself to be wrong so that you can learn. It is a simple fact. I would love to ask a question about a case in class and have nearly every student’s hand go up because they had no problem being wrong. I want every student to celebrate being wrong so that they can learn how to do it right. But, if you don’t do that. If you just sit on your hand, you don’t try something new, you don’t try a tenth time to understand a concept, you know what will happen? Nothing. It may happen in time – most likely will – but not nearly as fast.

Think about your good qualities. You have them because you have been and are wrong. So chill out!

Say it with me…”I WAS WRONG!”

Damn, that felt good!

I am the Director of the Terry J. Lundgren Center for Retailing at the University of Arizona and the PetSmart Professor of Practice. I am very passionate about teaching, being a Dad, barbecue and chocolate – not necessarily in that order.