Do not fear being wrong
At the end of Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol,” Ebenezer Scrooge famously realizes the error of his ways: “I will live in the past, the present and the future,” he shouts, “The spirits of all three shall strive within me. I will not shut out the lessons that they teach!”
We are delighted not only to see that Scrooge has become a kinder, more generous person, but we are also confident that he is now a wiser person. Not everyone’s experience is as dramatic, but there are everyday joys in everyday growth.
If you’ve ever found yourself losing an argument (and we’ve all been there), you know all about that uncomfortable, sinking feeling that creeps up on you as you realize, in fact, you’ve been wrong about something.
It doesn’t have to be a big “wrong”–maybe you were arguing with a friend that the movie “Back to the Future” was directed by Steven Spielberg (when in fact it was directed by Robert Zemeckis). Or it may be a more significant issue, such as debating with your son or daughter about whether they should go to college. It doesn’t even have to be an argument at all — maybe you said something incorrect in a meeting or in a class and you are immediately corrected by a peer or the person in charge. No matter the circumstances, it’s not a good feeling to be proven wrong. Or is it?
What if we consciously decided, from now on, to look at that feeling of being wrong not as the result of a failure of some type, but as a positive experience, as the feeling of learning something new? Suddenly, instead of feeling embarrassed or humbled by a mistake in fact or judgment, we feel energized by the very real, very encouraging experience of growth and discovery.
Often, we’ll do anything to avoid being embarrassed, and we may act bitter and resentful if we have to concede a particular point to someone else.
Even in private, when we realize we’ve been mistaken about some fact, or when we feel our mind changing an opinion on some issue based on reading another’s persuasive testimony in a newspaper or even on social media, we may quietly feel foolish.
But we can own this experience. We can reject the idea that we always have to be right. We can see instead that we gain wisdom with every new discovery, even at the risk of losing an argument. The result is that we’re no longer self-conscious about damaging our so-called authority; and, instead we take pride in our ability to gain wisdom.
College students will do well to develop and employ this method in their academic careers. Learning is an ongoing, adaptive process. If you approach each class or discussion with mind open to new ideas, new concepts, new ways of looking at the world around you, you’ve taken first step toward real wisdom.
And wisdom is impossible if you adopt an attitude that no one can teach you anything worthwhile. Remember, an acknowledgment that you were wrong about something is an acknowledgment that you now know more and are better for it. Do not fear the not-knowing… do not fear being wrong.
Jason Radalin is an assistant professor of theater arts.