There’s nothing wrong with being wrong

Charlie Munger, Marc Andreessen, Paul Saffo, Albert Einstein, Charles Darwin

Too often, we develop a strong point of view on something and then we stubbornly defend it, even in the face of contradictory evidence. We may have an idea, an approach, or an explanation — and we’re absolutely convinced that we’re right. So we vigorously defend our perspective. Worse, we consider anyone who presents an opposing viewpoint as mounting a personal attack against us. So we dig in our heels even more, even when we’re wrong. We’re more concerned about proving that we were right, rather than getting to the truth.

The best thinkers have argued for centuries that, as Ryan Holiday has written in The Daily Stoic, “There’s nothing wrong with being wrong.”

Marcus Aurelius, the ancient Roman emperor and philosopher, once wrote:

“If anyone can prove and show to me that I think and act in error, I will gladly change it — for I seek truth, by which no one has ever been harmed. The one who is harmed is the one who abides in deceit and ignorance.”

He goes on to say:

“Remember that to change your mind and follow him who sets you right is to be none the less free than you were before.”

Marcus Aurelius was making the point that it’s better to be closer to the truth than it is to cling to an idea that is ignorant or, worse, deceitful. You’re not harmed and you’re no less free if you change your mind and follow someone who “sets you right” or shows you that you “think and act in error.”

Swap out your less useful tool for a more useful one

The famous economist John Kenneth Galbraith once said:

“Faced with the choice of changing one’s mind and proving there is no need to do so, almost everyone gets busy on the proof.”

Charlie Munger, close partner of Warren Buffet and of Berkshire Hathaway fame, said in response:

“When a better tool (idea or approach) comes along, what could be better than to swap it for your old, less useful tool? Warren and I routinely do this, but most people, as Galbraith says, forever cling to their old, less useful tools.”

You have to be willing to distance yourself from your ideas and approach and think of them as tools, as Munger advises. If you only think about them as tools, then you will be willing to accept a better tool when it comes along, instead of stubbornly clinging to your old tool. And in doing so, you will get a better answer and outcome.

As Ryan Holiday wrote:

“No one should be ashamed at changing his mind… When someone points out a legitimate flaw in your belief or in your actions, they are not criticizing you. They’re presenting a better alternative. Accept it!”

When the facts change, I change my mind

Some people may believe that changing your mind makes you appear wishy-washy, uncertain, or maybe even un-trustworthy. There is in fact a strong psychological need for us to appear consistent, which is often why we cling to our own ideas. Get over it! And remember this quote attributed to John Maynard Keynes:

“When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?”

If you remain uncommitted to your own ideas, you are willing to adapt your point of view to new information, new perspectives, and better ideas. You hold on to your idea dispassionately, and when new information comes along (or the facts change), you can then change your mind.

You are not your idea

We need to be objective and maintain some distance between ourselves and our ideas. As Ed Catmull, co-founder of Pixar has said:

“You are not your idea, and if you identify too closely with your ideas, you will take offense when they are challenged.”

And as Marc Andreessen recently said:

“Be ruthlessly open-minded and constantly willing to reexamine your assumptions. You have to take the ego out of ideas, which is a very hard thing to do.”

Strong opinions, weakly held

So the first step is to get into the mindset that ideas are tools that you can swap, that you should change your mind when the facts change, and that you are not your idea. Once you’re in this mindset, you are ready to leverage a process that Stanford University professor Paul Saffo calls, “Strong opinions, weakly held.”

The basic idea here is that you often have to make decisions or forecasts with incomplete information. For example, you may have to forecast the revenue potential of a new business opportunity, or the impact of a new product. Despite the lack of available information, develop a tentative hypothesis for what the decision or forecast should be. Then actively gather information that either supports or refutes the hypothesis. The important part is that if you uncover information that refutes the hypothesis, then change your hypothesis. Don’t cling to your original idea, decision, or forecast even in the face of contradictory information. In fact, actively seek the contradictory information — this provides you with data to iteratively improve the forecast, until you get to the right answer.

Saffo describes his process as follows:

“I have found that the fastest way to an effective forecast is often through a sequence of lousy forecasts. Instead of withholding judgment until an exhaustive search for data is complete, I will force myself to make a tentative forecast based on the information available, and then systematically tear it apart, using the insights gained to guide my search for further indicators and information. Iterate the process a few times, and it is surprising how quickly one can get to a useful forecast.”

This is Saffo’s process for “strong opinions, weakly held.”

“Allow your intuition to guide you to a conclusion, no matter how imperfect — this is the ‘strong opinion’ part. Then –and this is the ‘weakly held’ part– prove yourself wrong. Engage in creative doubt. Look for information that doesn’t fit, or indicators that pointing in an entirely different direction. Eventually your intuition will kick in and a new hypothesis will emerge out of the rubble, ready to be ruthlessly torn apart once again. You will be surprised by how quickly the sequence of faulty forecasts will deliver you to a useful result.”

If you cling to your strong opinion too strongly, then you won’t be able to swap out your tool for a better one if you gather new evidence. So you have to be willing to change your mind when the facts change. Your strong opinions have to be weakly held.

Learning from Darwin and Einstein

Two legendary scientists and innovators — Charles Darwin and Albert Einstein — model the behavior of “strong opinions, weakly held.”

Charlie Munger gave a commencement speech to the Harvard School (the prep school, not the university) in June 1986, where he discussed how to live a life free of misery. In that speech, he urged his listeners to be objective and in fact engage in the “testing and destruction” of their own ideas.

Munger starts with a discussion of Darwin:

“Darwin’s result was due in large measure to his working method, which… particularly emphasized… that he always gave priority attention to evidence tending to disconfirm whatever cherished and hard-won theory he already had. In contrast, most people early achieve and later intensify a tendency to process new and disconfirming so that any original conclusion remains intact…
“The life of Darwin demonstrates how a turtle may outrun a hare, aided by extreme objectivity, which helps the objective person end up like the only player without a blindfold in a game of Pin the Tail on the Donkey.”

Darwin gave priority attention to disconfirming evidence. His approach sounds a lot like “strong opinions, weakly held.” Prove yourself wrong, engage in creative doubt, look for information that doesn’t fit. This approach will not only get you closer to the truth, but also strengthen your confidence in your eventual answer.

Munger then turned his attention to Einstein:

“If you minimize objectivity, you ignore not only a lesson from Darwin but also one from Einstein. Einstein said that his successful theories came from ‘Curiosity, concentration, perseverance, and self-criticism.’ And by self-criticism, he meant the testing and destruction of his own well-loved ideas.”

Einstein also objectively tested and even destroyed his own well-loved ideas. Again, his approach sounds like “strong opinions, weakly held.”

We started this post by discussing how we sometimes get too entrenched in our own ideas or approaches, and then vociferously defend and reject people or information that contradicts our own view. This is bad for a number of reasons, mainly because we might be wrong. Also, because we may miss better ideas and approaches that may actually yield better outcomes.

Marcus Aurelius wrote that you are no less free if you change your mind and follow someone who sets you right. In fact, as Charlie Munger advised, if you think about your ideas and approaches as tools, you should be willing to swap out an old, less useful tool for a better one. And, as John Maynard Keynes said, “When the facts change, I change my mind.” Don’t be too wedded to your own ideas that you can’t change your mind when you are exposed to new information, new perspectives, or new ideas. Remember that you are not your idea, and that you should be ruthlessly open-minded.

To go even further, you should in fact seek to challenge your own ideas by intentionally seeking disconfirming evidence. This is the “weakly held” part of Paul Saffo’s “strong opinions, weakly held” approach. Prove yourself wrong, ruthlessly tear your ideas apart, look for reasons why it won’t work. Then iterate your thinking based on the new information you discover to get to a better answer. Learn from the example of Darwin — who gave priority attention to disconfirming evidence — and Einstein — who tested and destroyed his own well-loved ideas.

If you have the right mindset and actively engage in the “strong opinions, weakly held” process, you will:

  • ultimately get to the best answer
  • discover unconventional insights (because you’re likely questioning the consensus view)
  • be more confident with your eventual answer

When you embrace this approach, you’re truly living according to the maxim that, “There’s nothing wrong with being wrong.”