A Short Guide on How To Be Wrong

To every person who has ever proven us wrong: Thank you.

Being wrong isn’t just good, it’s vital. It’s vital because getting something wrong is the best way to then get things right. You try something, it doesn’t work, somebody else finds a better way, you try that out, you improve on it… and so on.

This goes for ideas, theories, & practices, both for people and for organisations. In 16 years of business, the list of business mistakes I made would probably make up a book… and my life mistakes probably a Netflix series. But one of my go-to quotes is to only allow myself to do the same mistake once. Which also means that if I commit an error, I try to find its root (through my own or other people’s feedback), make changes and try again… I might fail again, but it’s then a different mistake.. and therefore it is okay, I can live with that.

It’s what the Socratic Method and Trial-and-Error are all about. You have a hypothesis, theory, or belief. You test it out, and you (or someone else) find errors. You correct and improve. This creates what is called a positive feedback loop of improvement. Getting something wrong brings you closer to the right way of doing it.

While the article title feels somehow controversial, this isn’t really about wanting to be wrong, so much as being alert to it and comfortable with it.

And both in business and life, failure is, quite literally, how everything improves.

Understand that failure is part of a process bigger than you, it’s a team effort.

How often do we begin to recognise that we’ve been doing something wrong and choose to ignore it away?

Realising that you’ve been doing something wrong – especially if the error has persisted for a while – can feel like admitting that you’re a failure. Failing can feel humiliating and embarrassing. It feels like a personal defeat. But it really should not be that way.

Innovation, like failure, doesn’t happen in isolation. Innovation is commonly seen in businesses as something that comes from one person, as a lightning bolt of inspiration. Likewise, an error is often seen as something that is caused by one person’s error of judgment. But again, it’s really not that way.

One example of this perception is Newton and his discovery of the Theory of Gravity. The story famously goes, “Millions saw the apple fall, but Newton was the one to ask why.” But that’s not what really happened. In fact, Newton’s theory was the culmination of 20 years of researching different authors, hypothesising and testing that required continuous assistance and feedback from others… and positively applying it.

Therefore, one must understand and accept that improvement – and error – are a collaborative process—a process that involves thousands of humans affecting and impacting each other and ourselves in varying and unpredictable degrees. And in return, this should help us accept failing more.

Get comfortable with it, and be thankful for it

I am not saying you should want to find out your method was flawed. I don’t think an aircraft manufacturer would want to find out their design has problems. But when an error is found, accept it with positivity and optimism. Accepting when you’re wrong is a good first step, especially when pointed out by others, but more importantly, be thankful.

This one is hard, because our first, second and third instincts are to ignore, get scared or get defensive.

Train yourself to overcome this. Show gratitude to the people who point out errors. By responding positively to people who identify errors, you increase the likelihood that they continue to give good feedback in the future. Responding negatively to people who identify errors discourages them from doing so again, and thereby robs you of an essential resource you need to keep improving.

Because failing today means you’ll be more right next time. Not perfect. But better. And that is always a good thing.

Try once, then try again… and again.

There have been many times when I refused to try something new or learn a new skill because I didn’t want to go through the failures and errors it would involve through the learning process. I would give excuses, I’d say “I don’t like this”, or explain it away by saying “I don’t have the talent for this”. But in the great debate of nature vs nurture, I lean firmly towards the nurture camp… talent isn’t born, talent is grown.

So the real truth is I didn’t want to humiliate myself doing something I had no experience with doing. To this day I sometimes struggle with this.

And here is the heart of the matter: Succeeding at the above is rather simple – you just have to keep trying – and failing. You’ll likely fail many times; I know I have. It’s easy to get emotional, it’s easy to lie and it’s easy to ignore. It’s natural. But that’s all right, that’s what this is all about. The goal is to fail better every time.

The freedom to fail is the key to success

In a time when photos are retouched with a click of the button and the phones in our hands give us an almost infinite stream of people sharing their best moments and their golden angles – admitting failures isn’t just brave, it’s revolutionary. Go for it!


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