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One of the biggest stumbling blocks to making real change in your life is the fear of being wrong.

How can I be sure what I want is the right thing to do?

How do I choose when I don’t know which road to follow?

What if I choose the wrong thing?

There are short answers to these questions: you can’t, pick one, and pick again.  But those answers usually aren’t very satisfying.

We assume that being wrong is a bad thing, an indication of failure.

It turns out there’s an entire profession that makes its biggest progress by admitting its mistakes: science.  Here’s how you can learn to do the same.

Curiosity versus fear

In this wonderful post on fear by Niall Doherty, he says

Most people, when they fear doing something, avoid taking action until the fear goes away. “I’m too afraid right now. I’ll do it when I’m feeling more confident.”

The problem is that fear never just goes away by itself. Most people have it backwards. You don’t overcome the fear and then do the thing; you do the thing and then you overcome the fear.

How do you make yourself act in the beginning, when you are scared out of your mind?

When you feel scared to make a change, move forward with questions instead of answers.

It’s easy to over-analyze and fret over answers.  If you let one question simply lead you to the next, the process is a lot less threatening.  Curiosity can be more persistent than fear if you cultivate it.

The catalyst for progress

When you boil it down, scientists aim to do one of two things:

  1. Advance our knowledge: this involves extending our understanding of the known.  For example, we know gene XYZ is implicated in causing cancer, and then we discover what protein is produced by gene XYZ.  This is the meat and potatoes of scientists’ work.  It’s satisfying, but not terribly exciting.
  2. Prove a theory wrong: this involves showing that some long held belief is incorrect, usually leap-frogging our understanding of how something works.  This is the dessert, the ultimate reward, and usually what vaults a scientist into fame.

Of course, it’s handy if the theory just disproved originated with someone else, but it’s not necessary.  Hardly anything is more exciting in science than over-turning a long held belief.  There’s a lot of bickering in the beginning, but if you can win the field over with enough data, you’re not a heretic, you’re a hero.

Most of us live our lives through small advancements.  One job naturally leads to the next.  We get married, have kids, and settle down.  Then something happens that makes us question everything we thought we knew.  You get fired.  Someone steals all the money in your bank account.

Sometimes, the piece of data you need in order to see life clearly isn’t all that fun to acquire, but it’s what launches you to a new level of happiness and fulfillment.  Sometimes, being wrong lets you be the hero of your own story.

How being wrong can feel so good

I like to say I’m an A+ student in the school of hard knocks.

For example, I dated a lot of nice people in high school and college but never got any closer to figuring out what kind of person I wanted to spend my life with.  It wasn’t until I married (and then divorced) a bipolar man who killed one of my cats that I finally understood exactly what I needed to be happy romantically and what I didn’t.

It would have been easy to use that failure to fuel my self-doubt, to question whether I was even capable of making decisions about healthy relationships.

Instead of beating myself up, I let my new found clarity lead me to a wonderful man I wouldn’t have fully appreciated without my experience.  We’ve now been happily married nearly twelve years.

Many of us like to claim we’re life-long learners.  If this is true, then we have to stop talking about the “learning opportunities” that come from being wrong as if they’re some kind of consolation prize.

Challenges are what make life interesting; overcoming them is what makes life meaningful. – Joshua J. Marine

In most cases, we learn a lot more when we’re wrong than when we’re right.

I look at it this way: admitting that you’re wrong, by definition, means you’ve learned something new.

So stop being so scared of being wrong and celebrate your mistakes.  The process of learning may not always fun, but the end result?

It’s usually pretty darn sweet.

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28 Responses to The Benefits of Being Wrong

  1. “It would have been easy to use that failure to fuel my self-doubt, to question whether I was even capable of making decisions about healthy relationships.”

    I just went through a divorce last year. So, I like the way you framed this, as well as the other examples throughout your article. Can relate.

    It’s awfully easy to remain afraid, having our past “failures” fuel our self-pity, and our paralysis.

    But sometimes it seems that due to a long-term, damaging relationship, for example, self-doubt’s a given. It has stockpiled reserves.

    It’s through recognition of the lesson learned over time, esp by working through the pain and through trying new experiences in spite of the fear, that long lost confidence is regained.

    But, changing that hesitant mindset and recognizing why I allowed it in the first place is a mind/heart stretching and ongoing process that, although extremely difficult, has begun to manifest a huge and positive shift in my life and those around me.

    Thanks, Jennifer, for prompting some time to reflect on this!

    • Garry,
      I think you’re exactly right. Self-doubt is a given. It’s gonna happen. But you don’t have to stay there. You acknowledge it, then keep moving, keep learning. I was talking to someone today about how science has taught me to be an open-minded skeptic. I think that’s maybe what you are saying too. And it can bring about the most wonderful changes. I see that in interview after interview. Some of the “luckiest” people in the world got there through hardship and some sort of trauma.

      Hang in there, Garry. Divorces are not fun, but a better life (hopefully for you both) is just around the corner. Hugs!

    • On
    • December 6, 2011 at 11:45 am
    • Ritu
    • Said...

    If I had a dollar for every time I’ve beaten myself up for making a mistake…..oh, boy! I’d be sitting on a big pile of cash.

    Fear is so sneaky. It spreads like vapor in all the dark areas of our insides and then holds us back so effortlessly.

    You are right, overcoming it may not be easy, but it’s necessary.

    Congrats on a happier marriage; that was a fear worth conquering!

    • Ritu,
      LOL for getting rich off your mistakes. If only we could! Well, we do in a sense, if you consider knowledge a form of wealth (as I do).

      And yes, finding a happy marriage was absolutely the best decision of my life. So it’s definitely proof you can go from very bad decisions to very good ones!

    • On
    • December 6, 2011 at 12:52 pm
    • Raj
    • Said...

    I constantly tell my parents and relatives around me that I want to make mistakes throughout my life (actually meaning that I want to keep learning) but they somehow accept that statement and aren’t surprised at all! :D But I do agree with the content of this article. Many of us learn this the hard way – after making enough mistakes ;)

    • That’s funny, Raj. Yes, keep making mistakes! LOL

    • On
    • December 6, 2011 at 2:21 pm
    • Mr Mr
    • Said...

    Sometimes mistakes can be pretty costly. Better to avoid the worst ones! Otherwise, have an adventure!

    • I agree, if you can avoid the worst ones, heck yeah, do it! Pain is not fun. But I wanted people to understand that if you don’t, if the worst happens, well, it’s not unusual to have something pretty wonderful follow it if you embrace the learning process.

  2. The System (schools, government and most religions) programs us from the beginning that making mistakes is bad. That we’re all somehow supposed to be perfect. Of course, that keeps us all in a constant state of fear which is the easiest way to control the masses.

    It’s usually those of us who “feel the fear and do it anyway” that become the new leaders. I’ve learned that it’s sometimes tough but it’s the best way to experience life. Dropping the resistance to being wrong also makes life a lot happier.

    • That’s a good point, Paige. We are programmed to think mistakes are bad, that they’re failures. If you can turn that thinking around, you really allow yourself to break free.

  3. Jen, thank you for this timely reminder! I love the idea that being wrong can be a very powerful catalyst for growth and change. And brava for drawing from and sharing your own life and experience.

    • Thanks, Caroline! That’s a hard story to tell and I don’t share it often. It was a truly difficult time in my life, as you can probably imagine. Much more fun to think about the present! But if it can make just one person feel better about their own mistakes, it’s totally worth it. :)

  4. Love this! I’ll make my husband read it;)

    • LOL! I’m not sure how to take that. And I’m not sure your husband will either. Let me know what he thinks, you rascal!

    • On
    • December 6, 2011 at 7:02 pm
    • Phil
    • Said...

    The perfect post at the perfect time. I’m going through something pretty difficult that’s causing me a lot of despair and frustration, and this post helped me to really take a look at things from a different perspective. Thanks!

    • Phil,
      I’m sorry to hear that you’re going through a difficult time. I’m glad this post can help you feel not so alone, and to recognize there’s a rose to be had once you get past the thorns (sorry for offering another metaphor–I couldn’t help myself). I’m wishing you enlightenment and peace.

    • On
    • December 7, 2011 at 5:26 am
    • Veehcirra
    • Said...

    I feel like you are reading my mind Jen. These questions do cross my mind oftentimes, but mostly I wonder how can I be sure what I want is the right thing to do?
    I pray expecting to hear a voice thundering out instructions to me! Or even a writing on the wall. Anything to validate my choices, and unfortunately this never happens.
    This post is like an oasis on the desert of failure!A gentle nudge showing that it is OK to fail,we learn…we grow!!
    Also,thanks for sharing your story,it’s very comforting and encouraging:)

    • I think one of the nicest things we can do is to show others that their struggles are shared. You’re not alone, Veehcirra! So go ahead, be wrong. And celebrate it. :)

  5. Great post Jen. As a mom I always wanted to protect my kids from making the same mistakes I did, yet my mistakes were how I learned so much. Perhaps Seth and Aaron didn’t make my mistakes, but being human, that made many all on their own. And they learned. (As their mom I HAVE to add, that they are wonderful, kind, loving, responsible adults with great sense of humor. Oh and they’re also..)
    As I work with women now to increase confidence, courage and clout- one of the lessons is just what Niall pointed out – the fear or apprehension doesn’t go away until we take the very action we’re afraid of.
    Thank you for having the courage to share your 1st marriage story. It definitely made your point in a powerful way. Go Jen. Cherry

    • Yes, my first marriage is a spectacular example, but certainly not the only time I made the wrong choice! And I agree, as a parent, it’s even harder to convince yourself that allowing your kids to make your mistakes is actually preferred. At least you have some idea of the outcome! LOL

    • On
    • December 7, 2011 at 2:59 pm
    • barbara
    • Said...

    This could be a companion piece to my recent post about reframing. Once you have some distance from the situation you can better find the silver lining, but what would you have learned if you hadn’t gone in the direction you did?

    Good post!
    b

  6. Absolutely Jen! I realized long ago that mistakes are how people learn the quickest. Then the trick as an employer and mom is to set the stage for allowing people to fail “safely” so that they improve due to the experience rather than letting it crush them.

    I don’t want my kids to get HIV to learn to use condoms for example. I don’t want my staff to get fired from a client to learn customer service – but a meeting where the client is able to air his concerns or frustrations would be helpful for the junior staff to learn.

    Great post!

    • That’s another great way of looking at it, Daria: that mistakes are how we learn the quickest. And I agree, there’s a difference between fatal and safe mistakes. The best we can do is to teach our kids how to identify the real dangers of the world.

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  9. Jen,
    You have touched on something that is so common in human nature – the tendency to be harsh with ourselves. When we beat ourselves up, we implicitly see ourselves as stuck with that outcome or level of ability. When we allow ourselves to see mistakes as lessons or growth opportunities, we also implicitly see ourselves as capable of growth and change. Self-compassion is a fundamental skill that we can learn from building relationships with compassionate others.