You are wrong about being wrong

Why you should learn to love your mistakes

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Oh no!

Our relationship with error

It feels like a punch to the heart. As I then begin to feel hot around the ears, I want to clench my fists and silently scream into a mirror. No, I’m not describing a particularly vivid nightmare, or even an acid trip. This is what it feels like when I realize I’ve made a not-insignificant mistake. Your own reaction when you screw up might not be as dramatic, but I can bet that what you feel lies somewhere between mild annoyance and utter panic. Stung by embarrassment, shame, guilt, or a combination of all these emotions, don’t you wish you could just rewind the clock and erase your mistake?

There is just something about being wrong that feels more painful than most other unpleasant things we experience in life: a root canal, for example. Even though our lives are littered with mistakes, each new one catches us completely off-guard and and makes us go through a roller coaster of negative emotions.

Why do errors always seem to come from nowhere and catch us napping? What is it about them that makes us feel like our world has come crashing down? These are some of the questions that two fascinating books — Being Wrong by Kathryn Schulz and Black Box Thinking by Matthew Syed — explore in considerable depth.

As both these books argue, the prevailing view that considers mistakes as something evil, is one of the biggest obstacles to individual and institutional growth. This is so because the emotional upheaval caused by error blinds us to the useful information embedded inside it. What’s more, a negative attitude towards error makes us less compassionate towards others as blame becomes our default reaction to their mistakes.

Now, of course some errors are preventable and cause untold misery to those affected by it. The medical profession is the most glaring example of how preventable errors can wreak havoc on countless lives. But this example most precisely illustrates the central point — our present, negative attitude towards error only magnifies the damage done by actual error and prevents real improvements from happening.

The tricks we use

To prevent our mistakes from taking an emotional toll on us, we make use of ingenious mental devices, mostly without realizing it. A typical trick is what Syed calls dissonance reduction. This is when faced with dis-confirming evidence, we explain it away to keep our existing belief intact. The story of the fox and the sour grapes might be the most famous example of this phenomenon. Faced with the fact that it would never be able to reach the juicy grapes high up in the tree, the fox explained his failure away by labeling the grapes as unappetizing.

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Darn grapes!

Self-justification is another mental trick that can prove to be even more devastating. In this case we unconsciously convince ourselves that no error actually occurred. With this move, the door of learning from our mistakes is firmly shut. After all, what is there to correct when nothing went wrong?

To even begin to understand our twisted relationship with error, we need to unpack why mistakes happen in the first place. As you’ll soon find out, error is a feature, not a bug, in the the human experience.

Why we make mistakes

Error occurs when our model of reality clashes with, well, actual reality. Our mistakes shock us so much partly because we forget that we interact with the real world only indirectly. Whether it’s through our senses, or constructed theories of how the world works, we navigate life using imperfect tools. Our mistakes, then are simply a case of these tools proving inadequate in a given situation.

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Photo by Sasha Mk on Unsplash

Using this prism, even the concept of knowledge is not sacred any more. As has been proven throughout history, what is considered the truth today might be falsified tomorrow by progress in science or cultural norms. This means that knowledge is really just a set of beliefs that have not yet been proven wrong. Error, therefore, is not a rare occurrence but an ever-present possibility at the boundary of our beliefs and the real world.

Leaving facts and science aside, we still cannot help but create theories of why things happen in the world. This tendency for sense-making is so deeply ingrained that we don’t even realize it’s happening. It is only when the belief fails that we become aware of its existence. Haven’t all of us have asked ourselves in exasperation after messing up: ‘Why did I do that?’ ‘How could I have been so foolish?’ This is us coming face to face with our faulty beliefs.

How mistakes make us feel

We are what we believe in. What differentiates us from each other is our beliefs — whether about ourselves or the world at large. Making mistakes violates these beliefs, which is why it feels like a part of us has been torn away. Since our identity is inextricable from our beliefs, being wrong unsettles our own idea about ourselves. This is even more true for experts who define themselves by their ability to be right.

More poignantly, the falsification of one belief puts the whole enterprise of believing in jeopardy. After all, if we can be wrong about something we strongly believed in, what else can we be wrong about? Mistakes feel so terrible because they seem to tell us that we are not as smart or reliable as we thought we were.

Another reason why we fear mistakes so much is because of the emotions they engender within us. If you really get down to it, it’s the feelings of guilt, embarrassment, and shame that we fear more. Take away the emotion and the errors don’t seem intimidating any more. As Schulz quotes a psychoanalyst in her book:

Our capacity to tolerate error depends on our capacity to tolerate emotion.

Finally, our aversion to being wrong has important implications on how we feel about the mistakes of others. Given how we chew ourselves out when we mess up, we are only too eager to do the same to others. Combine this attitude with a propensity to theorize and you have the classic response to mistakes: blame. So innately hardwired is this drive that we feel deeply unsettled when we can’t find someone (or even something) to blame.

A new lens for error

In a world that is too complex for us to understand fully, mistakes are a given. This means we need a new definition of error that is not only realistic, but also more humane. In this description, error is not something undesirable but a signal drawing our attention to what is important. Even in environments where we should strive to minimize error — such as health care — it is possible to do so only when we acknowledge its inevitability. This shift in perspective will allow us to see errors for what they really are: opportunities to become better.

What’s more, in some cases mistakes aren’t just unavoidable, they’re necessary.

Our understanding of life and the world is an incomplete jigsaw puzzle; mistakes help us know what the missing pieces are.

This principle is most apparent when we are learning a new skill. As any good teacher would tell you, the more mistakes you make, the better you become. As you attempt even harder levels, error is a useful companion because it reminds you of what you don’t know yet. So accept that you don’t know everything and be grateful for mistakes because they shine a light on areas that need your attention.

Error is so powerful simply because it conveys more information than being right. When you’re right, any supporting evidence only confirms what you already know. But when you are wrong, just that one data point can force you to dismantle your entire belief structure. This is why the scientific method is based on falsifying a hypothesis rather than finding confirming evidence. More famously, as Nassim Taleb’s famous example shows:

The existence of even a million white swans doesn’t prove that black swans don’t exist. However, sighting just one black swan is enough to prove that all swans are not white.

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Didn’t expect to see me, did you?

Moreover, always being right is literally depressing. It is a proven fact that depressed people have a too accurate view of the world and are therefore frozen into inaction because they simply don’t see the point. Normal folks, meanwhile, are able to stay blissfully happy thanks to their imperfect beliefs. This inability to accurately perceive reality is not only the definition of error, but also what gives rise to two of our most human qualities: imagination and hope. After all, it is only because they refuse to see the writing on the wall that great entrepreneurs, leaders and artists go on to achieve what others deem impossible.

Conclusion

If there’s any doubt about how fundamental error is to our existence, we only need consider how the process of evolution got us here. Set off by faulty mutations, this slow and silent force shapes all life on earth by constantly testing and discarding, using mistakes to drive a species forward. In other words, we humans are merely a link in a long succession of failed prototypes.

It is more important to realize, however, that error is not so much an anomaly, as it is a peek at the reality hidden from us. Even the most basic of mistakes stem from the same faulty belief that the world is predictable and we know all there is to know about it. Therefore, in order to protect ourselves from error we have to first accept that we can never completely eliminate it. Only then can we stop living in fear and embrace mistakes for what they really are: opportunities to become better than who we are today.

I read like a man possessed | I write to understand the world | Twitter: @DhawalHelix

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