Make Space to Be Wrong

Last week I attended an event hosted by the news organization Vox.

The event was a two-day nerd-fest of talking about policy called Vox Conversations. The goal was to get a bunch of policymakers, organization leaders, and nerdy wonks together to talk about policy in the Trump era.

Conversations was built from three different pieces. First, there were short presentations by featured guests like the mayor of Atlanta, a state representative from Missouri, and the president of the American Enterprise Institute.

Next, there were live interviews and policy discussions including people like Senator Cory Booker, Senator Bill Cassidy, and 2016 presidential candidate Evan McMullin.

The third, and most interesting, piece of the puzzle is what Vox calls “unconference sessions.” These are hour-long blocks in which the participants break into small groups and discuss questions or issues in which they are interested. The participants create a bunch of different topics and Vox employees select four or five for each hour-long block. You pick whichever issue most interests you and join the conversation.

I actually don’t want to talk about any of the substance of those discussions today. Instead, I want to talk about one of the rules.

Off the Record Discussions

At the beginning of the conference, Ezra Klein, Vox’s editor-in-chief, laid out some ground rules. One of those rules was that while the interviews and presentations were on the record, the small group discussions were off the record.

No tweeting. No facebooking. No attributing quotes to anyone.

The reason for this was to make space for people to be a little bit wrong.

Klein stated this and moved on rather quickly, but the idea stuck with me. It makes a lot of sense and is something that we could all use some more of in our lives.

Space to Be Wrong

We live in an age when pretty much everything is preserved for posterity. The Facebook posts that you make when you’re 18 will be dug up when you are 40. Your past tweets can and will be used against you in the present. (Ask our president about that one.)

Even if you think you are deleting content, you often aren’t. And even if you are, it is often still cached for future recovery.

This creates a culture in which we are all very careful about what we say. On the one hand, we are much more careful not to offend people with insensitive comments. This is good.

On the other hand, we are much more careful to avoid saying anything that might turn out to be wrong. This is not good.

We are most likely to be wrong when we are saying something that is outside of mainstream thinking. We are most likely to make serious progress on tough issues when we start conversations that are outside of mainstream thinking.

Our fear of being wrong leads us away from challenging the status quo. Pushing the envelope. Changing the conversation. In doing so, our fear of being wrong impedes us from making real change.

I’m a Student, Not a Guru

Derek Sivers in his book Anything You Want points out that he is a student rather than a guru.

This is a book about entrepreneurship written by a guy who built a company from scratch and sold it for $22 million. At age 37.

And in the field of entrepreneurship he considers himself a student.

In the introduction to the book, he tells his readers, “I hope you find these ideas useful for your own life or business. I also hope you disagree with some of them. Then I hope you email me to tell me about your different point of view, because that’s my favorite part of all.”

Sivers is not presenting himself as the authority on entrepreneurship. He is not presenting the concrete facts and definitive answers. He is starting a conversation and inviting differing opinions.

We need more of this approach in our culture if we are going to solve the tough problems.

How to Be Wrong

Being wrong is easy. Allowing yourself the space to be wrong and start a conversation is much tougher.

Here are some thoughts that I have come up with on how we can work towards making that space.

Publicly Embrace the Growth Mindset

Our culture is big on the idea that you are either smart or you are not. You are either talented or you are not. This is both wrong and damaging.

We have examined the differences between fixed mindsets and growth mindsets previously, but this would be a good time to revisit that research.

We are not static in our intelligence or abilities. We can continue to grow and learn.

It is okay to be wrong, as long as you are learning. Similarly, it is okay to say, “I used to believe Thing X, but I have since been convinced of Thing Y.”

If you are afraid of being branded a flip-flopper, be prepared to reframe the issue into one of growth and learning.

Learn Humility

Humility is another trait that is quite lacking in modern culture. We could all use more of it for a number of reasons, but in this scenario, it helps ease the sting of being wrong.

If we are humble, then we can recognize that it is okay to be wrong. We are only human after all. This allows us not only to start more conversations with the space to be wrong but also to more easily admit that we are wrong.

Humility prevents our ego from locking us into positions and beliefs that are unsustainable.

Invite Differing Viewpoints and Don’t Take Criticism Personally

Like Derek Sivers, it is important for all of us to invite differing points of view into our discussions. We all have different life experiences and everyone brings something to the table.

The Internet and cable television have enabled us to have far more opinions available to us than ever before. Instead of using this as an opportunity to learn about and try to understand the opinions of others, we are tuning in only to news and information that supports the views that we already hold.

We need to reverse this trend if we hope to make any progress on solving big problems.

Part of opening the discussion up needs to include learning not to take criticism personally. If we believe that any attack on our ideas or positions is an attack on our character or intelligence, then we will retreat to a defensive crouch and block out the person attacking us. Instead, we need to get better at hearing, understanding, and responding to criticism in an open manner.

Humility helps here. Maybe we’re wrong. It happens. Maybe this other person has a point that we missed previously. Criticism being correct doesn’t undermine our intelligence or character as long as we take it seriously and use it to grow.

These are all things that I need to develop more thoroughly. I also have not spent a ton of time thinking through this issue and may have missed the mark. What do you think? Do you disagree with some of my ideas? Do you have any other tips and tools to add? Join the discussion in the comments!

20 thoughts on “Make Space to Be Wrong”

  1. I agree with this a lot. My only thought comes at the end. Just as it is important not to take criticism personally, it’s important to not give it personally. As a culture, we need to do a better job of confronting the idea or clarifying matters of fact to make our point when we are trying to approach someone else rather than attributing motive or name calling. When the language gets so very personal (snowflake!Nazi!) it’s difficult to dissociate the lesson from the language. It only reinforces the echo chamber.
    Emily @ JohnJaneDoe recently posted…State of the Blog April 2017My Profile

    1. I agree completely. While we cannot do much to change the tone of those criticizing us, we should certainly be as civil as possible when criticizing others. The language can get very personal, especially on the Internet where we don’t have to look the other person in the eye when we say it.

      Thanks, Emily!
      Matt recently posted…Find Your Own TribeMy Profile

  2. In 2017, I’m looking to experiment – to be wrong, to test my limits, and to make mistakes. I’m 24, almost 25. I’m single and in a good spot financially. I want to take a bunch of risk now – not financially, but in terms of looking to leverage my time, efforts, and abilities to do something GREAT.

    Thanks for sharing – this really spoke to what I’m looking to do right now in my personal life, blogging life, and work life.

    Have a good one Matt
    Erik @ The Mastermind Within recently posted…Skill with PeopleMy Profile

  3. Matt:

    I so wish more people thought this way! Thinking about being open to different viewpoints makes me think of an incident here at work. Shortly after Trump was elected, a co-worker said something similar to (his words were actually harsher): “It will be good to get Obama out of there, he hasn’t done one good thing.” I countered quite a number of times, finally asking “So you are telling me that a man that ran for President, and must have loved his country, was in the office of President for 8 years, and did not do one thing that you consider good?” He emphatically agreed.

    The media has hi-jacked most of America’s minds! We can have differing viewpoints, we can learn from each other. Someone you don’t agree with, I know it’s crazy, but they can still do some good things!

    We all have brains, we just need to start using them.

    And that’s all I have to say about that!
    – The Tepid Tamale
    The Tepid Tamale recently posted…Doing what I love – What in the world is that going to look like?My Profile

    1. You are right and the political culture in this country has gone completely haywire. I have no idea how to fix it on the national level, but I guess we just need to start by doing the best we can to fix ourselves.

      Thanks for the comment!
      Matt recently posted…Find Your Own TribeMy Profile

  4. I’m much better at this as I get older, but still have a long ways to go. There is so much fear about being wrong, no matter what side of the fence you’re on. While I find it easy to take criticism from some people, I find I’m more likely to take it personally from others (and sometimes it depends on presentation). And this is the same for giving it – it depends on who I’m giving it to and what it’s about – sometimes I don’t give feedback when it could help someone just out of fear that it will hurt their feelings. I need to work on this. I love how you always make me think about these things, Matt! 🙂
    Amanda @ centsiblyrich recently posted…3 books that will help you make positive life changesMy Profile

  5. Matt, this is great. I’ve always tried to admit when I’m wrong and value that trait in others. I’m surely not perfect at it but I try. Learning to accept criticism of our ideas, is something many of us need to work on. If we can remember it is meant to assist us in understanding and growing that should help.

    Have you read Daring Greatly, by Brene Brown? It’s helped me find the courage to do more, and hopefully start some fantastic conversations.

  6. I’ve believed in this philosophy since I was a young kid, I’ve never once thought about it in the context you just presented, Matt.

    I was an athletic kid and played any sport I could. One of my basketball coaches used to tell us that it was okay to make mistakes, that we wouldn’t get pulled out of the game if we screwed up. He didn’t want us to play “looking over our shoulder” at the bench every time we goofed up. Doing so would cause us play tight and make even more mistakes. By giving us the space to make errors, we ended up playing much better.

    That made sense to me and I believe it to be true, so ever since then I’ve always liked situations where I didn’t have to “look over my shoulder” all the time (whether that was at work, in relationships, on the field, or somewhere else). Good stuff, Matt!
    Ty Roberts recently posted…Worked to DeathMy Profile

    1. That’s a fair point. Fear of failure can be a big stumbling block. I think we need to work on recognizing that the consequences of failing aren’t usually anywhere near as bad as we anticipate them to be.

      Thanks for the comment!
      Matt recently posted…Find Your Own TribeMy Profile

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