The notion of “being wrong” got a bad name to itself. While ”being right” is important (and considered to be a good thing) for us, “being wrong” is something we tend to hide and get rid of by trying very hard to be (always) right.
It seems we are wired for it. It is hard to explain or express in words, the kind of satisfaction that one gets when he or she is right. We’ve all felt it, and it felt good! We are addicted to being right. It makes us happy, even if sometimes we don’t admit to it.
What if being (or thinking you are) right is ultimately and paradoxically the wrong thing to do?
In this post I speculate based on my personal experiences and wonder whether these translate into some sort of genetic notion towards changing our attitude towards “being wrong”. Now, obviously, some may argue that are different kinds of “wrong”. In this post, I am looking specifically at the notion of “being wrong”, for example, when thinking about the next (career) move, making a project call, arguing something or when making a judgment call.
Spoiler. If you’re looking for answers you probably won’t find them here.
The world is very complex. This makes it hard to navigate for us: what direction to go? Where to turn? 1 As humans, we need to have a sense of progress because without we feel lost. It seems being right acts an internal driver, often an excuse, to keep going. We need this simplification because otherwise we feel that we are not progressing.
Being right is certainly appealing as it can be a source of great motivation and confidence in one’s ability to perform. In modern society we are preached to do everything we can to be (always) right: read books (about others peoples’ mistakes), learn from our mistakes (things you did wrong) and trust our instincts (i.e., luck) to make the (right) decision at the (right) time. It seems, for us to be right, a lot of people (including ourselves) have to be openly and frequently wrong.
Nevertheless, we attribute success to the notion of “right”, i.e., you have to be in the right place and the right time, say the right things for the right things to happen in the right way. In a majority of the time, people who are considered to be often right are treated differently. They are admired and their opinion tend to carry more weight than others. As a result, they start to believe and act as if they know something others don’t — attributing “being right” to experience, intuition, and intelligence, rather as some suggest being plain lucky.
This is how Malcolm Gladwell puts in his book2:
“Superstar lawyers and math whizzes and software entrepreneurs appear at first blush to lie outside ordinary experience. But they don’t. They are products of history and community, of opportunity and legacy. Their success is not exceptional or mysterious. It is grounded in a web of advantages and inheritances, some deserved, some not, some earned, some just plain lucky - but all critical to making them who they are. The outlier, in the end, is not an outlier at all.”
For me, the wording “right time”, “right place” carry a much more profound and philosophical meaning. When is it the right time and how we know we are in the right place? In my personal opinion, we simply don’t. Gladwell3, also explores this idea of choices and actions that seem as being right (or wrong) at first but carry other unperceived consequences in the future.
On close examination “being right” can actually get us into doing the wrong things. We lose the sense of exploration, our pride and confidence “blinds” us to what lies ahead. If we have strong feeling of being right about something, there is no need to explore the alternative (we are right after all). This combined with biases such as availability (what you saw or read on the news), confirmation (selectively hear what you believe is right) and narrative (story that someone told you and make sense to you), we become completely absorbed within our own world, selective picking the events around us to justify its existence.
Often, at least for me, what seems right at the time, turns out to be wrong, and as the time passes, it can become right again, and repeat. It seems the notion of right and wrong are in constant isolation. I am even starting to think they are (often) the same thing. These binary labels seem to me as yet another simplification that we need to make sense (illusion) of the environment around us.
In his books, Taleb explores this notion of the unknown. He warns us from becoming suckers, i.e., being fragile from the hidden risks and not taking advantages of the opportunities presented to us.
The point that resonated with me the most in Taleb’s thesis on randomness, is that I and everyone else around me are really trying to make sense of something that is really very ad-hoc and often unpredictable world.
“In the complex world, the notion of “cause” itself is suspect; it is either nearly impossible to detect or not really defined—another reason to ignore newspapers, with their constant supply of causes for things.”
― Nassim Nicholas Taleb, Antifragile: Things That Gain From Disorder
We never see the whole picture, our world perception is very subjective and often biased from external and internal sources. Life handles us pieces of the puzzle that sometimes connect but ultimately our attempts in figuring out how it all connects are dimmed being useless. He actually argues against attempting to figuring out the world around us and just (in most case) let nature do its thing.
The thought that stuck with me was: Nobody really knows anything for sure or even close to that.
I recently met a friend over coffee in Palo Alto over, he described his entrepreneurial journey as a collection of steps where he and his team got it “wrong”. I am paraphrasing here: “when we started our start-up, we thought we know how things are, but then we moved into an accelerator, and we learnt quickly that we were wrong, same thing happened when we moved to the US, we learnt that what we thought was the right thing to do, was actually wrong, etc..” So his journey can be categorised by many as constantly being wrong, but he didn’t sound like someone you has failed – quite the opposite. This is because, I think, the start-up community realized the potential of being wrong. In many ways, it advocates for being “wrong” and often as possible. You learn a lot from failing, probably much more from (immediate) success.
“ [In] general, failure (and disconfirmation) are more informative than success and confirmation, which is why I claim that negative knowledge is just “more robust.”
― Nassim Nicholas Taleb, Antifragile: Things That Gain From Disorder
We are programmed to have mental templates (labels) in our head and it seems anything that doesn’t fall directly into them is “wrong”. It takes significant mental effort to operate without any templates, they make our life significantly easier, but I cannot help the feeling that it also a gross simplification of the real thing.
Kahneman describes the notion of two mental systems that cooperate in our consciousness 7:
”System 1 operates automatically and quickly, with little or no effort and no sense of voluntary control.
System 2 allocates attention to the effortful mental activities that demand it, including complex computations. The operations of System 2 are often associated with the subjective experience of agency, choice, and concentration.”
We (i.e, our System 1) put binary tags on something that is very much “analog” with noise and imperfections. In order to challenge these tags, System 2 needs to be frequently evoked, which demands mental energy, concentration, and some practice.
So this led me to a mental exercise. Rather trying to be always right, imagine that every single thought, a reflection that you make is (possibly) wrong. This is harder to do than it reads. Saying “I am wrong” to yourself is very demoralizing it is much easier to fool yourself into being right (i.e., everyone and everything else around is wrong). So I suggest not calling it “wrong”, after all, this is again just a label, another template. How about just saying “I don’t know” or perhaps, just as Taleb refers to it in his books, incerto which in Italian means uncertain, unsure. I like it. It kind of tricks your mind into thinking “I am not wrong, I am just not sure if I am right :)”
Staying away from being right and being uncertain has upsides to it as well. You get a double if not triple dose of that “good feeling” I described earlier, when things to fall your way and less (or none) of the disappointment when things don’t. We all felt it when we believed something was wrong and it turned out to be right.
Practical example. Usually, when you meet someone new for the first time, you immediately get an opinion about him. Malcolm Gladwell discussed this in “Blink”8. Although, he claims that our brain is actually better at it than we think, it sometimes falls into the trap of availability, narrative, confirmation and other biases. These are templates. They make our life easy but often inaccurate. So instead, when you meet someone, assume your first impression is wrong – i.e., I don’t know and wait for input. This is hard because we are essentially fighting with what we were evolutionary programmed to do.
I guess the trick here is to teach ourselves operate in a constant sense of unknown. Constant search for evidence can lead to exploring new paths, something that would’ve avoided thinking we are following the “right” one already.
As a society, we are no good at accepting “being wrong”. We promote and respect people who are (almost) always right. It makes sense to us, but really a lot of the successes come from people who are constantly “being wrong”, which in hindsight look as if they’ve made all the right moves.
This is particularly evident in academia 9, where a majority of publications are on things that worked (i.e., we were right!). Failed experiments are rarely published or somehow advertised. The pressure to be always right makes people in academia follow a safe path, trends and current “hot” topics. This is very strange because a lot of great discoveries were discovered accidentally.
Training yourself to operate in the unknown, gives you more time to figure out things. This is hard, very hard at times but even on a small scale I believe can provide us with great insights that we would otherwise miss. In other words, it’s a constant journey; you never get to the most definite answer. Ultimately, every decision and moves you take cannot be categories as “being right” or “being wrong”. Some people call it destiny or find other more believable (to us) ways to describe it. It’s about progress, movement, constantly seeking and being ready for what comes.
Interestingly, the word “right” or its stem in some languages such as Russian, French and obviously English used for directions as well. ↩
Gladwell, Malcolm. Outliers: The story of success. Hachette UK, 2008. ↩
Gladwell, Malcolm David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants ↩
Taleb, Nassim Nicholas. The black swan: The impact of the highly improbable fragility. Random House, 2010 ↩
Taleb, Nassim. Fooled by randomness: The hidden role of chance in life and in the markets. Random House Incorporated, 2004. ↩
Taleb, Nassim. Antifragile: Things That Gain From Disorder ↩
Kahneman, Daniel. Thinking, fast and slow. Macmillan, 2011. ↩
Gladwell, Malcolm Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking ↩
As a side: Early on in school, students are marked on getting the “right” answers and not for exploring the space of all the seamlessly wrong ones. In some disciplines, it might make sense, though I am not sure. My problem with such approach that quickly, their young minds are trained to operate in a binary world, where everything has an answer and a label. So when they encounter state of uncertainty (i.e., real world), they panic and find themselves wanting to be part of a framework where these labels make sense (i.e., work, army, school). This is not always a bad thing, but I wonder what we as a society miss out on by restricting their minds. The focus should be less on finding sophisticating ways to mark their progress but rather enhancing their journeys within the unknown by enriching their skills set and training their minds to feel comfortable to the notion of “being wrong”. ↩