The cost of being wrong — and why individuals, companies and society should aim to reduce it.

I had a conversation with a friend in which he was complaining about his relationship with his manager. In our conversation he mentioned a few things that they do not see eye to eye on. What stood out to me, in his words, were “the unfair consequences when one is wrong”. He mentioned that because of this he has become reluctant to take on tasks he has never done before, or tasks he knows he is not the absolute best at.

This got me thinking about the cost benefit analysis we do each time we make a decision, and how if the cost of being wrong is high we are less likely to do whatever it is we were considering doing.

From when we start school we are taught that being wrong is a terrible thing and something you should strive never to be. We are punished and shamed for being wrong. As we grow older we learn that this is not only a quality of school, but a quality of society at large. Each time we are wrong we get treated as if we are fundamentally stupid, and each time we express having changed our minds about an opinion we expressed in the past we get judged harshly for ever being wrong — as opposed to being celebrated for finally reevaluating our stance.

As a consequence of this we develop an aversion for being wrong. Each time we are told we are wrong we get defensive, to the point where some of us feel the need to argue our way out of being wrong — even in cases where it can be proven that we were mistaken.

Because the cost of being wrong is so high people are less likely to share their unpolished opinions and skills. As a result this is the only state in which lots of opinions and skills ever exist. This creates a culture where (contrary to the original intent when making the cost of being wrong high) people are still wrong. But they are wrong privately, and they will never be corrected, because no one will ever find out.

In the case of skills, lots of companies miss out on the opportunity to unlock their employees’ full potential simply because there isn’t room for their employees to be wrong. Very few companies have direct incentives for going over and above your job description, and if they do have such incentives they are not immediate. By contrast, almost every company has a concise disciplinary process and it’s too immediate for you to even be 30 minutes late (verbal warning, written warning 1, written warning 2, fired). This results in a mediocre workforce that never goes past the parameters of playing it safe. They then make up a mediocre company with (horrifyingly) average products or services.

As individuals, it’s important to ensure we keep the costs of being wrong as low as possible at all times - especially if the thing we are taking a chance at being wrong at is something we care about. This is where the importance of having fuck you money (enough money to say fuck you whenever you want and still be okay), or savings, or a backup plan comes in. At every point in time you want to make room for being wrong about your employer/your career/your business adventure/your mixtape/your bank robbery.

It is only through being willing to be wrong that we can innovate and change the status quo. Whether we are willing to take the leap will depend greatly on the cost of being wrong.

I build software and occasionally have thoughts on non-software related subjects. https://dacod.co.za

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