Being wrong by Rebecca Crichton, Seattle, Washington
I admit I like it when experts, particularly pundits and others who speak with Delphic authority about the future, are wrong. Even when they’re wrong about something I wish they were right about, I feel a kind of reassurance. They don’t know the future. Even with all their data and experience and authority, they haven’t gotten it right.
Jonathon Kozol, an influential educator from the Sixties, whose first book, Death at an Early Age, about his first year as a teacher, articulated what was wrong with American education. (Future books continued to spell the reasons and possible repairs although it is hard to see that much has changed.) I was struck by his statement that we are so hooked on the ‘right’ answer, and on receiving ‘yes answers,’ that we don’t recognize that we learn more when we’re wrong. We discover what we didn’t know, which helps us make better choices, see things differently and develop some humility.
I like being right as much as most of us do. And I am also aware that when I make mistakes – not understanding something or believing everything I think – I can benefit from rethinking, reframing, reflecting.
When I am with people who state things with great authority – even close friends – I say to myself, “Of course you think that.” I don’t challenge or correct unless it seems really wrong or I feel strongly about it. Not surprisingly, my correction is rarely received with grace. I might be right, but the correction is not kind and I see I have created distance.
I’m not saying we shouldn’t correct misinformation or wrong perceptions of reality; I am saying we can learn to do that in ways that preserve relationships and might open the other person to learning something they didn’t know.
I am training myself to hear a correction with an open mind, with “Thanks, I didn’t know that.” I am practicing uttering the hardest words of all for someone who likes having the right answers: “I don’t know the answer to that!” I might offer to find out or I might ask the other person what they already know.
Humility may not come naturally, but we can all use a good dose of it in these days of change and challenge.