If your answer is yes, you are an honest chap. If your answer is no, either you are lying to yourself or your name must be Nobody (“Nobody is perfect”). Or you are a candidate running for president—the best any country ever had. I would like to meet you.
Being wrong is not really a subject we like to talk about. The truth is that when we talk about mistakes, they are usually in reference to others, rather than ourselves.
Looking ourselves in the mirror, however, could help in our journey to becoming a better person. This is what I see:
Mirror 1) We think of truth as black and white, but it rarely is:
Sometimes in life, we find ourselves between jobs, sometimes, between lovers, and sometimes, even between homes. But we almost never find ourselves between theories. Rather than assess a belief on its own merits, we choose among beliefs, clinging to our current ones until something better comes along. Of course there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with this strategy—in fact, it might be the only truly viable one—but it does narrow the moment of wrongness to mere nanoseconds. We are absolutely right about something—until the very instant that we are absolutely right about something else.
Our enjoyment of being right is matched by an almost equal feeling that we are right. Occasionally, this feeling spills into the foreground; when we argue, make predictions or place bets. Most often, though, it is just psychological backdrop.
A whole lot of us go through life assuming that we are basically right—basically all the time— about basically everything: our political and intellectual convictions, our moral beliefs, our assessment of other people, our memories, and our knowledge of facts. As absurd as it sounds, when we stop to think about it, our steady state seems to be one of unconsciously assuming that we are very close to omniscient.
The first thing that we usually do when someone disagrees with us is that we just assume that they’re ignorant. Because they don’t have access to the same information that we do and when we generously share that information with them, they’re going to see the light and come on over to our team. Nevertheless, when that doesn’t work, then we move to a second assumption, which is, that they’re idiots.
It’s nice to be right when you’re sure. Are you sure?
This was the pivotal insight of the Scientific Revolution: that the advancement of knowledge depends on current theories collapsing in the face of new insights and discoveries (“the more you know, the more you don’t”). In this model of progress, errors do not lead us away from the truth; instead, they edge us incrementally toward it, but at the same time, extending the horizon further.
During and after the Scientific Revolution, the leading minds of Western Europe took this principle and generalized it. These thinkers identified the problem of error-blindness on a generational and communal scale. We cannot always spot our own private errors, but we can be sure that they are lurking somewhere.
The hallmark of my teenagers is that they think they know everything and therefore are happy to point out other people’s errors. By contrast, the wisdom we perceive in the elderly often stems from their hard-earned knowledge that no one knows everything. In the long haul, they recognize that all of us screw up, misunderstand ideas, misjudge situations, underestimate other people, overestimate ourselves and all of this, over and over again. In this respect, their wisdom is a form of humility, one that enables a less rigid relationship to the world. From purely black and white—to seeing the world in greyscale—with more subtleties than you realised before.
Ok, nice to know, but how does the awareness that I am (surprisingly) not perfect help me in my decision making?
I ask myself three questions before making big decisions:
- If I make this change and I am right, what impact will it have on my life?
- What impact will it have, if I’m wrong?
- Have I been wrong before?
Then I challenge my distorted thinking by asking myself:
- Am I basing this on opinions, or facts?
- Am I stuck in this thought-mode through laziness in thinking?
- Could I be suffering from a cognitive bias?
- Are there examples to back up my way of thinking?
- What leads me to believe this?
- Where’s the proof of this?
- Is there another way of looking at the situation?
- Am I just jumping to conclusions?
Remember you could be wrong—someone has to be.