Why It’s a Lot Harder to Be Wrong Than You Think

One of the most freeing thoughts I’ve come across is that, outside of mathematics, it’s a lot harder to be wrong than you think.

Growing up we hear a lot about “the wrong way.” That’s the wrong way to pronounce that word, to color in that book, to play on the gym.

In an odd way, it feels good to hear. After all, if you’re marketing your blog incorrectly, that means that there might be a Right Way and if you just did that, it would succeed.

I spent a lot of time sensing this tension but struggled to find the right words to explain it. It’s obvious that you shouldn’t always follow advice blindly, but I felt like there must be a better tool for thinking about advice that would be helpful in situations where it’s less clear or there’s a lot of emotion involved.

One common element to most feedback, advice, or opinions is an implied “if” statement:

“That’s the wrong way to pronounce that word — if you want to read it aloud and not get laughed at.”

“That’s the wrong way to color in that book — if you want to get a good grade.”

“That’s the wrong pace, the wrong thing to focus on, the wrong hours show up for work — if you want to keep this particular job.”

The important thing to recognize is that these things aren’t actually wrong, in the way that 2+2=5 is wrong. They’re just not suited for a particular situation or outcome. Even more than that, sometimes they’re just not suited in a particular person’s judgement or experience (which may or may not be accurate in your case).

One useful tool I’ve found is to look for the “if” statement, and then see if I find myself agreeing with it or not.

If I want to keep my job, I may need to change the hours that I show up. Or, if I want to be my truest, most productive self, perhaps I need to find another job that’s more accommodating to my natural rhythm. Same feedback, but different outcomes depending on which “if” I believe in.

Someone may tell you that writing one sentence a day is the wrong way to write a novel, but of course you can write a novel this way. So what do they mean? A lot of times the “if” statement boils down to simply: if my experience is the same as yours. If nothing has changed or is unique with your situation. If you have the same goal as me.

Sometimes that is enough. If a doctor says I’m taking a prescription the wrong way, it’s smart for me to listen. They’re an expert in this particular facet of life and have devoted more thought to it than I ever will, and the consequences could be unpleasant. I’ve found it helpful to treat these as exceptions, and to be a bit more skeptical rather than defaulting to agreeing with an “if” statement.

Understanding the ifs floating around me is perhaps the most powerful tool I’ve found for staying true to myself. It helps me to be more aware of experience bias, where people may over-value their own experiences and preferences. I can also reflect more on what I’m truly hoping to accomplish because instead of being tactical (“Am I following this advice?”), I’m able to be strategic (“Do I agree with this goal?”).

More importantly, once I know what “if” is lurking behind a piece of advice or feedback, it becomes a lot less scary. Even when that “if” is huge and life-altering, I’ve found that it’s infinitely better than simply being wrong for no reason. “I’m doing things wrong” can be a quick path to imposter syndrome, anxiety, and uncertainty.

When someone gives me advice or feedback, it’s challenging sometimes to to remind myself to take a few extra seconds to reflect on the “if” statement that might be attached to it. But it’s also been the most effective way I’ve found to honor that feedback and integrate it with my goals, without being overly reactive to it.

This post originally appeared on www.patrikward.com on October 10th, 2016.