“When you say ‘I don’t know’, a door opens.”
– J.G. Bennett
The greatest compliment I ever received was from a friend of mine while we were shopping for nuts in a supermarket. He said.
“Alex, you are the only person I know who is completely fine with saying ‘I am wrong.’”
I’ve always felt like a relatively selfless individual, but I was so touched by this because I had never viewed this aspect of myself as a strength.
‘I make mistakes all the time, and so I have to constantly admit I am wrong, how is this a good thing?’
However, the more I thought about it, the more I realized that there is a power in saying you are Wrong.
The chief feature of our inability to admit wrongness is that we identify with our opinions. We ‘become’ our worldview and as such when someone challenges it, we feel we ourselves are being challenged. Jung called this concept the ‘persona’, where fragments of the ego would get lodged into life activities or social status concepts. If, for instance, someone is an extreme fanatic for billiards, and encounters someone who hates the game, his persona is identified with billiards and as such he will feel like he himself is being insulted when the game he plays is criticized. The extent to which the wandering mind will graph itself onto the most benign and fleeting concepts is tragic. A passive decision about where to put a candlestick on a table can feel like someone is defaming your very soul, notwithstanding decisions involving creativity or money.
Self observation is a great tool for self mastery in this. Chris Hadfield mentioned how astronauts must ‘depersonalize criticism’ and I could not agree more. To look at your behavior and processes objectively, and to see with a rational eye where you have erred is an invaluable gift. Likewise, the thirst to be always right and the fear of being wrong in front of others can lead to terrible, toxic interactions with the people around you. Being wrong is not weakness, it is humanity. Self-mastery.
Admitting you are wrong takes confidence, courage, and grace. A begrudging, pyrrhic acceptance spat through gritted teeth will do no good. Being wrong should be something that is accepted gleefully within yourself as well as expressed externally. When we are wrong, we have an opportunity to grow, and to show others that there is not harm in it. Quite the contrary, admitting we are wrong helps everyone.
I have many memories of being at work and seeing the perils and frustrations resulting from someone not admitting they were wrong. Like a battle of verbal attrition, definitions change, people try to save face, become frustrated and distant. Communication breaks down. I swore never to be like that, to save myself from tremendous, useless suffering.
Once, I made a calculation error at work, and picked up the wrong product, resulting in a chain of errors that took hours to correct. I was confronted and it looked like I was about to get chewed out by three different superiors, when I decided to take a big gulp of spicy embarrassment gumbo. I looked them straight in the eyes and said.
“You’re completely right. This is 100% my fault. I was wrong.
It was like an incantation had been spoken. These were the same people I have seen rake coworkers over the coals for a minor oversight. They just looked at one another and said.
“Ok that’s fine…Just go down and get the right stuff.”
Admitting when you have erred is greater than a galaxy of ‘sorry’s. It is at the same time the last step in any conflict, and the next step to solving the error. I try my best, now, to be on the hunt for my wrongness. The more quickly I can admit to an error, the better I can become.