You Have the Right to Be Wrong

July 20th, 2005 by Steve Pavlina

“You have the right to be wrong” was a common expression of an old high school history teacher of mine. Some students hated this teacher because they thought he was lazy and a bit sadistic. He never lectured, nor did he ever seem to have a lesson plan prepared. He’d just sit back in his chair, sometimes putting his feet up on his desk, and then he’d ask probing questions and insult whoever attempted to answer them (usually for their lack of individual thought).

For homework he’d assign us lots of dry reading material, and then we’d have to write very brief papers on complex subjects, like a two-page, double-spaced paper about the causes of the Civil War. Believe me — this is a lot harder than writing a 5-10 page paper on the subject because you have to choose your words very carefully. Otherwise you’ll run out of space before you make a dent in the topic. Two pages was the maximum you’d be allowed to write. If you wrote 2.1 pages, you’d fail the assignment. “Verbal flabbiness” wasn’t allowed.

Despite his lack of popularity, this teacher had the stated goal of teaching students to think for themselves instead of merely regurgitating information we learned elsewhere. This is tough to do with 17-year olds, especially with a subject like U.S. history.

I thought the expression, “you have the right to be wrong,” while usually meant as a joke in this class, was good advice. It’s not in the Bill of Rights, but perhaps it can be considered a basic human right. You have the right to be wrong. You have the right to make mistakes. You have the right to fail.

Many people don’t see the value in exercising this right, however. I think this is also a major component in the fear of public speaking. What if you take a stand on something, and you’re shot down, proven utterly wrong?

What’s so terrible about being wrong? If you’re never wrong, to me that indicates you aren’t growing. I hope that five years from now, I’ll look back on some of my blog posts from this year and disagree with myself. Otherwise it would mean that either I haven’t grown or that I was too timid in expressing myself.

Don’t be afraid to take stabs at the edges of your certainty. That’s one of the best ways to learn. Let others react to your ideas. Sometimes they’ll help provide new facts that can allow you to refine your ideas. Other times they’ll merely react emotionally which can help you become more resilient in weathering other people’s emotions. Don’t be afraid to put forth your ideas in a conversation, a speech, an article, a blog entry, a forum post — any communication where you can get feedback from others.

Take your ego out of the picture

I think people resist being wrong because they equate their ideas with their ego. So if their ideas get shot down, they treat it as a personal defeat — they feel humiliated. The feedback from others may even encourage this reaction: “Boy, you really blew it tonight.” But just because others equate your ideas with your identity doesn’t mean you’re obligated to do so as well.

Over-investing your ego in your results is unproductive and unnecessary. If you think the failure of your ideas is a personal failure, you’ll take too few risks, risks that could ultimately pay off. But if you can learn to separate yourself from your ideas and your work and see them as something separate from yourself, you’ll feel you truly have the right to be wrong. If an idea fails, why not let it be the idea’s fault instead of your own? Allow your ideas to fail without turning them into personal defeat.

When I write articles or give speeches, I do my best to remove my ego from any attachment to the results. Ideas are ideas — they are not me. Even if I’m relating personal stories, those stories are still not equal to the real me. They’re merely words. If I give a speech and get a lousy reaction, the reaction might be due to my lack of skill as a speaker. But again, my skills are not equal to the real me. My ideas and skills are merely possessions or creations, but they don’t define the real me. Thus, I never feel my ego is in any danger if a speech or an article bombs.

If an idea seems to really hit the mark, I don’t take it as a personal victory either. I just think… hey, that appears to be a good idea. If an idea misses the mark, I see if there’s any helpful feedback and then may refine or abandon the idea. Or it could be that I felt the idea wasn’t expressed well enough and missed its mark due to being poorly communicated. To me it’s all just feedback to create better ideas and to improve communication skills.

I think this attitude is what helps make it very easy for me to give a speech without nervousness and to write regularly for an audience of tens of thousands of readers. I feel it’s perfectly fine for me to be wrong. When discussing a complex subject like personal growth, there are many shades of gray. Despite all the knowledge and experience I have in this area, there’s no way I could ever hope to perfectly understand every facet of this vast field. Plus my communication skills are invariably imprecise. Effective communication requires a combination of logic and emotion, and those are sometimes at odds with each other and will impact different individuals uniquely. I know of no great speakers or writers who ever achieve unanimous agreement when they communicate anything of value. By keeping ego out of the picture, you can do as Winston Churchill suggested — move from one failure to the next with no loss of enthusiasm.

How could you better exercise your right to be wrong? Have you been afraid to hit the gym because you don’t know what to do and expect that you will only look like an idiot? Don’t put your ego on the line — remember that it’s only your skills that are lacking. You are not lacking as a human being just because you lack certain knowledge and skill. Where else could you take a stab at being wrong or ignorant where the only long-term consequence would be a bruised ego (and not even that if you leave your ego behind)?

You have the right to be wrong. Let your ideas fail, let your skills prove their inadequacy, and let your knowledge reveal its limits. None of that is the real you anyway.

When you fail you discover your boundaries. You map out the edges of your capabilities. And this allows you to eventually move beyond them.

Being wrong eventually leads to being right. And even where it doesn’t, it’s still a more interesting path than being nothing.


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