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.)
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.
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!