The Unheralded Art of Being Wrong
When I want to know what France thinks, I ask myself.
— Charles de Gaulle
Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants; electric light the most efficient policeman.
— Louis Brandeis
This week I was on a phone call. Everyone on the call had a different point of view than me. They were being nice about it. At some point I stopped and said, “I’m wrong. Right?”
The call got quiet.
We went around the horn and everyone shared what they thought. The data was not perfect, but it clearly pointed in the direction of the others.
“You guys are right. I changed my mind. Let’s move on.”
No one said it; I could feel it.
People were surprised.
I should be embarrassed.
Passion provides purpose, but data drives decisions.
The Green Triangles
There is a case with Green Triangles. It’s about the Challenger disaster. Three groups, each with different data sets— through the forces of human tribalism — reinforce their positions by talking to like minded people who have the same data. The physical organization of the classroom even changes as you sit, stand and talk with your tribe.
Then the professor throws in a curve ball. New data. That new data should cause every one of the people on team Green Triangles to walk across the room and join a different tribe.
I was a Green Triangle. I looked at my tribe. Nobody moved.
They seemed like aliens to me.
Like the scene in Jerry Maguire with the fish, I said, “I’m going. Who’s coming with me?”
What was so hard about divorcing who we were from who we had been one hour ago? I walked across the room.
Later, I would be the recipient of this same learning. It’s actually the opposite of what the Buddha said.
When the teacher is ready, the student shall appear.
The Sun King
If people can’t change their minds after an hour of living in the wrong camp, how do they do it if they have spent their whole lives on the wrong side of history?
With the forces of story-telling, tribalism, and stubbornness being rewarded over the eons, how are we supposed to denounce our prior selves?
How are we, one day, supposed to agree with Galileo and Copernicus and say — you know what, maybe those guys are right?
A world that revolves around us became a sun we revolve around.
In our humility, our wisdom is revealed.
The ability to retreat from a position becomes a far more important skill than the ability to form one.
One is a commodity. The other is a precious metal.
It should be easy to change our minds when the stakes are low.
And yet. It’s still hard. When the stakes are high, it’s damn near impossible.
When our whole tribe is premised on being wrong, and we are surrounded by people who are wrong, how do we become right? How do we become a Confederate Southerner who fights against slavery?
History rewards those who can change their minds when the stakes are high. If the data shows a flood is coming, we move. Even if everyone disagrees, we walk. Our reward is that our family lives. Those who don’t might die. They pay the ultimate price for intellectual dishonesty.
It is also in us to change our minds.
The Price is Being Right
A young man wore a flipped-up visor in the style of a self-assured frat boy. As a lone Green Triangle walked across the room, Flipped Up Visor Boy decided he wanted to be friends with Green Triangle. Over some rum and Diet Cokes at the Old Pro, that friendship came to life.
The irony, or maybe the karma of the situation, is that Flipped Up Visor Boy would later become Vision But No Visor Man, and he would spend three years correcting Green Triangle’s imperfect understanding of the fine line between fantasy and reality.
A company that might have died became a company that would live.
Vision But No Visor Man would pay the ultimate price for being right. Like a Green Triangle himself, he would have to leave the tribe to show it the error of his ways. His parting gift was the answer. His reward for asking the question was to become an outcast.
The intellectually dishonest leader would stay on, and wrestle down the reality of his crime.
The loudest voice in the room, sometimes, is the absent voice of the silenced.
A Parting Lie
I am going to be very intellectually dishonest with you: I am good at being wrong.
What I have learned is the best way to be wrong is to learn to love it.
You may hate it when you are wrong.
Everyone else LOVES it.
So just try it.
The more wrong you are, the more often you are taking courageous positions, the more often you are testing them, the more often you are apologizing, the more often you are charging forward and lurching backward, the more often you are living a textured and meaningful life, the more often you are empowering the radically candid people who love you, the more you are showing the people you love that you love them enough to say when they’re right and you’re wrong.
“I’m sorry, honey, I was wrong.”
Are there six more magical words you can say to your wife?
I’m new to this marriage thing, but I’m not new to being a founding CEO. It’s been ten years. And I can tell you right now:
If you can’t be wrong, you’re dead.
So learn to embrace it. Learn to love it.
And long live your tribe because of it.