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My accident had caused me to think differently, but the first time I recognized that was when I first noticed how people reacted to being wrong. It made Grade One surreal. Everyone saw wrong as a mistake or a problem or otherwise something that you do not want to do. That truly baffled me because it’s an indefensibly crazy idea.
Your brain processes/creates the world in such a way that you notice patterns in things. That’s how you know how the world works. So if your mom buys five cans of soup at the store, before too long you’ve figured out that you don’t need to look back in the cupboard for another soup if you’ve already eaten all five. By making that mistake when you were little, you learned that five is five is five and gone is gone and done is done. These are concepts that your brain had to learn to absorb and then apply elsewhere.
The point in the soup story is that you needed to be wrong. You had to try something that wouldn’t work before you could begin to understand the reasoning behind what did work. For you to recognize a pattern you have to identify its rough edges by failing. As William Blake said, “You never know what is enough unless you know what it is more than enough.”
Failing is why you lost your helium balloon as a kid. Kids always lose them because they are making the mistake that the balloon will fall down and not up. Because they’ve practiced that gravity idea, remember? They dropped stuff from their highchair all the time. Intentionally. Just to watch it fall. And in doing so they built the idea of gravity. And it looks like it’s always in operation—until a kid sees either a hot air or helium balloon, or a plane or helicopter, and of course these are all things that amaze kids. These things break the law of gravity and that’s one of the most certain ones we feel we have.
Throughout life you collect that reasoning and the laws and principles that emerge in life (like gravity or grammar or customs etc.), and then you live your life according to them. But none of those neural networks could exist without you using Socratic Method. Your brain must guess and test itself through the world, and the wrong answers are more important than the right ones because they will eventually be what exposes why the right answer does work. And then that principle can get applied to other situations. So much like the best batters are also the people who strike out the most, being smart is like being willing to be wrong the most. Remember, when you’re born your brain doesn’t grow outward like branches on a tree. Rather the entire thing glows with possibility and by learning you shut ideas off—you remove possibilities. Yes you can add new concepts too, but in the end your beliefs/identity are less like a tree and more like a sculpture.
There is no shame in being wrong. As Jonathan Swift said, it’s a way of saying your smarter today than you were yesterday. How can you be upset about finding out you’ve been wrong? Finding out you’ve been wrong is the end of being wrong. Why would you be upset that the ignorant part is over? You should celebrate that. You just had a eureka moment. You’re bigger now. You understand more. You’re more capable.
Your vocabulary doesn’t expand if you don’t look up the words you don’t know. If you can’t admit you don’t understand it, then you can’t take the steps to correct your misunderstanding. So people who don’t like to be wrong are the same people who learn the least. You know those people; they’ve had the same job for 20 years, but really they haven’t grown—they’ve just re-lived the same year 20 times with no growth-from-wrongness occurring.
Leap towards your mistakes. Revel in being wrong. Rejoice at learning that you were incorrect. This is an expansion of you. This is what makes you better at being you. Failed relationships increasingly point to what we truly want in a partnership and from ourselves. Getting fired points out either bad bosses or missing skills. Being turned down for one thing creates an opportunity for another.
Your divorce wasn’t a failure. It was you testing the world to see what you truly want. And maybe that was a healthy marriage for who you were at one time. But life changes. People grow. Sometimes together sometimes apart. So as experience teaches you that, you don’t think you made the wrong decision getting married 20 years earlier. Realize instead that you’ve had 20 years of growth from two people and that it would almost be surprising if they were still wanting all of the same things in life.
Your life isn’t a collection of successes and failures. It’s a set of tests that had results, and the results informed which directions you chose in life. That’s all anyone is doing. And even if they’ve been super successful at negotiating the work world, that doesn’t mean they’ll have been good at the marriage world, or the kid-raising world. So stop comparing yourself. And stop beating yourself up for the mistakes that are an inevitable part of your growth. Your realizations that you’ve made a “mistake” are merely you recognizing that your tests of life have lead you to become someone who is both bigger and better.
Scott McPherson is a writer, mindfulness instructor, coach and communications facilitator who works with individuals, companies and nonprofit organizations around the world.