November 7, 2015

396 words 2 mins read

Learning to be wrong

I am wrong a lot.

When I was 25, I was wrong a lot, too.

The difference between 1988 and 2015 is not that I’m particularly smarter now, but that I’m used to being wrong. Somewhere along life’s journey, I realized two things:

*1. Being wrong isn’t the end of the world. *2. Being wrong is the beginning of learning.

When I was 25, I refused to admit being wrong about anything. Now, I assume I might be wrong about everything. Recognizing–even embracing–our own fallibility seems rare, to me at least, among young people of any era, any culture, and generation. School teaches us that being wrong is bad and that learning is the overcoming of ignorance. On these two points, education is wrong.

Politico Was Wrong

The discredited Politico hit piece on Dr. Ben Carson smacks of the folly of youthful mindset. Politico was wrong and has since changed its false headline and slanderous lede without admitting its error.

Politico’s Kyle Cheney wrote the piece. Cheney graduated from Boston University in 2007 making him about 30 years old. I know little about Mr. Cheney, but he seems to display what psychologist Carol Dweck calls “a fixed mindset.” People with a fixed mindset are more concerned with demonstrating their infallibility than in learning and growing. And, having managed young people most of my life, fixed mindset seems a particular malady of men in their late teens through their early thirties.

Learning Begins With Error

Learning begins, not with a blank slate, but with recognition of error. The entire scientific method depends on error. A theory emerges only when the scientist fails to falsify his own assumptions. As the great Richard Feynman said:

If your guess disagrees with experiment, it is wrong. It doesn’t matter how beautiful your guess is, how smart you are, who made the guess, or what their name is… it is wrong.

Without the guess there is no experiment; without experiment there is no learning.

Mr. Cheney might learn from his error now that the experiment disagrees with his guess. Or he might hold onto his fixed mindset, trying to prove that the experiment was wrong, not his guess. Not that he should ask me for advice, but I would offer this: always assume you might be wrong.

For more on Being Wrong, see this TED talk by journalist Kathryn Schultz:

[ted id=1126]