Thursday, April 28, 2016

A Guide to Being Wrong

Being right is fun.  Being wrong, not so much.  Is being wrong really that bad?  As with most things, it’s a question of timing.

Jamie inherited a lot of money and is looking to build his future with it.  He loves peanut butter and  believes that people would really love a peanut butter flavored beverage.  He secretly builds up a whole factory to mass produce and distribute this beverage and funds a giant advertising campaign.  On launch, the product flops.  He discovers that he was wrong in a very expensive way.

But what if he had tested his idea as soon as he came up with it?  A simple poll or survey could have told him he was wrong before he spent a dime.  In doing so, he may have learned that what people really want is a peanut butter flavored FROZEN treat.  Opportunity (and tons of money) lost.

It’s common business sense to test ideas early, and yet, the fear of being wrong often prevents people like Jamie from doing this.  Hearing that you are wrong is a form of rejection.  The avoidance of rejection leads to deferred (and more costly) failure.  Even worse, it can lead to an avoidance of any risk taking, stopping innovation in its tracks.  So how do you build the courage to be wrong?  You celebrate it.

Being right feels good because it is a validation of your past.  We’ve been trained by the pop quizzes of our school days to consider everything in life a test.  If you’re wrong, then you fail the test.  You’re a bad person.  But let’s imagine you are always right.  In every conversation you have, and in every debate you engage in, you are always right.  That’s awesome.  The people around you learn a great amount from you and marvel at the vast knowledge you have accumulated in your life.  

But let’s look at it from a different perspective.  The people around you have learned a great amount from you and are becoming more interesting, valuable members of society.  You meanwhile have learned nothing and are not improving.  Now who’s getting the raw end of the deal?  There’s a tradeoff here.  Validating past-you is actively hurting the success of future-you.  But you can control this dynamic.

The next time you meet someone new or engage in conversation with friends and coworkers, pay attention to these two opposing goals.
  1. Demonstrating knowledge, being right, and gaining social status
  2. Being wrong about something and learning something new

Try the second one.  You don’t need to be openly and embarrassingly wrong.  Just approach the conversation as an opportunity to extract knowledge from the people around you.  Ask them about things you don’t know.  If you disagree, listen to the other side and really be open to being wrong.  HOPE to be the one who is wrong.  In the game of learning, being wrong is winning.

But isn’t learning just about gaining information which you didn’t have before?  You can do this without ever being wrong, right?  WRONG.  In your mind, you are constantly building paradigms of the world.  Everything fits into these paradigms.  When you don’t know anything about a subject (say, competitive wood shaving), you still have a model in your mind of how this probably works.  You have assumptions on everything.  New information can disprove these assumptions and replace them with a more accurate model.

Now let’s think about the impact of new knowledge.  Say you don’t really care about dog contests and know nothing about it.  You assumed that there was no money involved in this but recently learned you were wrong.  Great, you learned something new, but it wasn’t a big deal because you never really cared about it.  Being wrong didn’t feel bad.  And being proven wrong didn’t have too much impact on your life.

Now let’s imagine you strongly believe that multivitamins are good for you, and you LOVE them.  You eat ten a day and would eat more if you could afford it.  The more the better.  You loudly proclaim that everyone should eat more multivitamins and get a costco membership just so you can afford more.  Then a friend mentions that you could overdose.  You think she’s crazy.  But remember to keep an open mind.  Being right gains you nothing.  Learning you’re wrong in this case could save your life.

Mythbusters is a edutainment show that really demonstrates how being wrong can be fun.  Everyone has an opinion on whether certain myths are true.  Good episodes answer unknowns in explosive fashion.  GREAT episodes surprise us by taking myths where everyone believes one thing and is proven WRONG.  It’s at this point that the show bridges over from being entertainment, to being truly educational and impactul.  Getting your mind blown is fun.

Approach life as an opportunity to grow and invest in future-you.  Find the fun in busting the myths in your own head.