Getting better at being wrong

WRONG WAY (Photo credit: CarbonNYC)

A few days ago, someone corrected a mistake that I made. I nodded and said, “Now I know.”

Perhaps this doesn’t seem like a strange situation to you, but it represents a lot of personal growth for me.

I have spent most of my life sucking at being wrong. I don’t think that this is unusual for many geeks – we build our self-esteem on our brains, and our brains are rarely wrong. Therefore, we seriously lack practice. It can be embarrassing to be wrong as well. When I was in elementary school, my friends would giggle with glee if I was wrong about something, and they’d tease me about it for days.

I got to the point that I would be defensive about being wrong. It was never that I was actually wrong, but that there were circumstances beyond my control. Like aliens stole my brain, or this other person was wrong and told me the wrong things. In retrospect, I’m sure I looked even more ridiculous by being defensive, but I would do just about anything to avoid admitting that I made a mistake.

I was in a singing group in college (with a bunch of other geeks – our name was a calculus term), and we used to always tell each other to sing more loudly by saying, “If you’re going to be wrong, be wrong loud enough that you can tell and fix it!” This was hard for me, as my mistakes would be (gasp) heard! Before I could fix them! But I eventually realized it was better to be wrong in practice and corrected than to carry the mistake over to our performance.

While I would love to say that I got better immediately after this experience, that wouldn’t be honest. I’m sure I could tell you lots of stories of my being in denial about being wrong over the years, but I’ve apparently blocked them out.

Eventually, however, I made another step. I realized that if I didn’t know that I was doing something wrong, I couldn’t fix it. I would just continue to do the wrong thing, and the consequences could be rough. Folks could quit if they disliked how I treated them, or I could really blow a budget or project based on an incorrect assumption. I developed a pretty strict policy of, “If I don’t know about it, I can’t fix it.”

By developing this policy and treating being wrong (and finding out about it) as a learning experience, I eventually came to value being corrected. I’ve also worked at a few non-law firm companies now, where being wrong is treated as more of a learning experience than an exercise in shifting blame, which has helped me a lot. I can’t say that it doesn’t still embarrass me – I did blush when I was corrected earlier this week – but I have finally learned to accept it and move on.