New Paradigm: Being Wrong is Right On

It took me a long time to be okay with being wrong. In fact, I used to be deathly afraid of it. Looking back, I believe that my fear of being wrong is something I learned in school. Sir Ken Robinson addresses this issue in his (very funny) Ted Talk on the topic, saying that education kills creativity. “We stigmatize mistakes,” he explains. “We run our companies like this,” and “we’re now running national education systems” like this, “where being wrong is the worst thing you can make.” Does this resonate?

I reflect back on my time at Reed College, where I first became acutely aware of my fear of being wrong and eventually (finally!) learned to get over it.  In my post Don’t Believe Everything you Read in a Book, I talk about the shock and horror I experienced when a Biology professor told us to cross out text on—and even tear out (my gosh!)—the pages from our book.  You mean everything you read in a book isn’t right?  No, it’s not.

My classes at Reed frequently pushed me to think outside of right and wrong answers.  We didn’t have definitive textbooks.  There were no multiple choice tests.  In fact, the way that most of my classes approached learning was to assign five or six conflicting articles or books and then ask us to “discuss.”  More often than not, there was no right answer.

It took me about two and a half years to realize that the way I’d been taught to learn (looking for the right answer) wasn’t working for me at Reed.  All the symptoms were there: I was afraid to speak in class; I had more questions than answers; I was confused by the students who quickly offered definitive statements.  But it wasn’t until a professor said to me, “You know, Erin, if you don’t speak in class, I assume you haven’t done your reading,” that I realized something really needed to change.  I had done my reading.  It was the speaking—and the possibility of being wrong about what I’d read—that I couldn’t get past.

My fear of being wrong was so deeply entrenched that I needed a year off from school in order to get over it.  I did a lot in that year, nannying in Lancaster, PA, Cooperstown, NY and Redwood City, CA; traveling for a month to Costa Rica and Nicaragua; coordinating an August wedding; and taking a mycology class at UVA’s Mountain Lake Biological Station. (Ironically, and as the only undergrad, I earned a grade of 100 in that class. Take that Reed’s weed-out freshman Biology course that gave me a C-!).  In all of my searching, traveling, and real-world living, I think I was digesting how to be wrong.

In order to succeed at Reed, I realized, I needed to be willing to look take risks, to speak up, to be right, wrong, and even— appear “stupid.”  When I returned to Reed I was resolved to attend every single class and speak at least once.  And I more or less did it.  And the more I did it, the less painful it became.  Through the process I learned that on the other side of each moment I said something that needed adjustment or correction was a learning opportunity (and not just for me, but for my whole class).

“If you’re not prepared to be wrong, you’ll never come up with anything original,” Sir Ken Robinson harangues.  Today, as I’m simultaneously working to find breakthrough marketing ideas in a saturated pipette calibration industry and coming to grips with my entrepreneurial spirit (oh, the failures! so many to look forward to), I realize that there has never been more value in being wrong than in today’s business world.

Be wrong often!  Be wrong quickly! The sooner you figure out what doesn’t work, the closer you are to discovering what will. What I’m describing is not revolutionary—unless you’re like the old me, paralyzed by fear of being wrong.

Thankfully, today there are whole camps of people dedicated to the practice of being wrong, to “failing forward.” Design thinking is on the rise, software development is moving from the waterfall method to scrum or agile approaches; and in education, Montessori seems to be getting a little more attention. We need more people who are willing to be wrong, to be creative, and to think out of the box if we’re going to solve the world’s problems.

Now that I’ve gotten this off my chest, I think I’ll go do a little math.  That’s definitely one area I could use to fail a little faster. (If that seems like an inside joke, I’m referencing this post: Reality of the GMAT: I’m an Idiot When it Comes to Math.)

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