The Benefits of Being Wrong

by | Dec 6, 2011 | Science of Happiness | 26 comments

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.