The Beauty and Beast of Being Wrong

I have had one of the most unique few weeks in my life, and I’ve struggled with whether to even include them in Shaeffer’s Forays or not.  I’ve used Shaeffer’s Forays to think through any number of things, from leadership, to issues with higher education, to bragging about my family. You might be wondering what topic could possibly give me pause in terms of using Shaeffer’s Forays as a tool for thinking it through?

Oh, what the heck.  What gives me pause is that what happened in the last few weeks were two huge of example of me being wrong.  I will let that hang there for a minute. Yes, me being wrong.  Let me start from the beginning.

Like many of you, the spring is a heavy traveling season and I spent most of March being on the road.  They have all been great trips. I learned lots at conferences. I got to see old friends and meet new ones, spent time with family, and Lord knows, I had some good times.  While traveling on one of my trips, I was listening to XM Radio Re-mix (this is not an advertisement but it is an interesting station to listen to while driving across Virginia), and up comes a TedTalk (audio in this case) from Kathryn Schulz on being wrong.  It was a very interesting talk, and as I listened to it I thought, “I’ve got to share this with Peggy.”  Little did I know that it foreshadowed two situations where I was wrong, and where I could apply some of the notions Ms. Schulz raised in her talk.

Fast forward to the present. Here are the two big mistakes that I made in the last two weeks. First, I lost my billfold in the back of a cab on my way to the airport in Miami. Imagine arriving at the airport, reaching into your pocket for your ID and finding that you had no billfold thus no ID, and no credit cards. In a phrase—I got nothin’. The second situation: imagine you are changing light bulbs in your grand room with really tall ceilings, and you lose your balance and fall straight down causing damage to your foot.


In both of these situations, I had a high level of confidence that I was doing the right thing, that I had the situation under control, that I knew what I was doing. Having “accomplished” these two quintessential examples of being wrong in such a short period of time, I know that this has to be a teachable moment for me regarding not only my own stupidity in losing my billfold and doing damage to myself in a fall, but also how this whole of notion of feeling right and actually being wrong is reflected in our leadership and decision making.

(You know I must be an educator if I see losing my billfold and falling 10 feet down is a teachable moment.)

I went back to what I heard that evening from Kathryn Schulz on being wrong.   She describes what she does as thinking about situations where we “misunderstand the signs around us (i.e. being wrong), and how we behave when that happens, and what all of this can tell us about human nature” — and in my case, what that tells me about me.

Schultz begins by asking us to think about how it feels when you are wrong. That may include feeling dreadful, embarrassed, or stupid.  She suggests that these are feelings you have once you figure out that you are wrong, but when you are in the act of being wrong, you really don’t feel anything.  Her example is the Wile E. Coyote, in that he often chases the road runner right off the cliff and then there is that moment when he looks up and has a blank look (e.g., feeling nothing) and then is gone, falling off the cliff.  It is that moment of when we are wrong but don’t know it, that we don’t even know enough to raise the little sign the Coyote uses saying, “help!”

In my recent experiences, this exactly what happened. I reached for my wallet and assumed it must simply be misplaced; when I lost my balance there really was that split second of feeling nothing, followed by “oh s**t.”  And when I think back on other moments of being wrong, they were similar.  I may have been in the heat of a discussion, darn sure I was correct, and that my interpretation of the situation, the policy, the procedure, was right to only find out when I got back to the office that there are two sides to a story. Or I may have been in discussions with colleagues and learned that my interpretation, which I was so sure was correct, had ripple effects on other decisions.  The lesson learned from Schultz is “Most of the time, we don’t have any kind of internal cue to let us know that we’re wrong about something, until it’s too late.”

If you are like me, you’ve been somewhat programmed to believe that you are right and that we aren’t those people who make mistakes.  I’ve traveled throughout the world, and I wouldn’t for a moment think that I would do something so stupid, so wrong as losing my billfold. I’ve replaced lightbulbs for years, after all I’m macho man, I know how to do this. And worst of all, I’m a bright guy, I’ve been making decisions for years, of course I’m right, those “who get stuff wrong are lazy, irresponsible dimwits.”

Schulz asks us to “Think for a moment about what it means to feel right. It means that you think that your beliefs just perfectly reflect reality.”  Yes, I’ve been there, my beliefs “perfectly reflected reality.”  Looking back, I am embarrassed that I wasn’t more insightful.  Schultz describes the steps we take in assuring we are perfectly correct and others are incorrect. We make the following assumptions: First, they must be ignorant not to see it my way. Second, they’re idiots (her words but I’m sure we can relate) for not seeing it my way. Finally, they really do know the truth but “they are deliberately distorting it for their own malevolent purposes.”

Schulz reminds us that “trusting too much in the feeling of being on the correct side of anything can be very dangerous.”  I should have known better with my billfold because I know that I have a bit of ADHD, that I can be easily distracted and that I need to double check that I have everything before I go to work, leave work, or get out of a cab.  Yes, I’ve changed out those light bulbs dozens of times, I trust myself, I know what I’m doing. Except, I am not as young I use to be and I need to be that much more careful.

As a leader, it really is my obligation to not cross the line of trusting that feeling of being on the correct side.  Yes, there are those times where a decision can be black and white but those situations are far and in-between.  One of things I’ve learned and need to remind myself is that there are two sides (at least) to every story; there are unintended consequences to every decision; and you can never rush into a right decision.

So could I have avoided being wrong with losing my billfold and taking my fall? A definite yes, as I indicated above. If I would have simply stepped back and took a more holistic view of what I was doing, I could have avoided the consequences of being wrong.

The same is true of moving beyond our sense of being on the right side.  Schultz suggests that “This internal sense of rightness that we all experience so often is not a reliable guide to what is actually going on in the external world. And when we act like it is, we stop entertaining the possibility that we could be wrong” — and I would add that this is when we make the fatal step of actually being wrong.

As academics we are obsessed with figuring things out, obsessed with “understanding” so that we do make the right decisions.  As leaders we need to leverage this natural tendency of “understanding” and look beyond our internal world, our own sense of being right, and open ourselves to the external, our friends, colleagues, family, who can help us see beyond our own sense of “rightness.”

For me this takes a great deal of courage. Heck, who wants to be told they are wrong.  I am lucky that I am surrounded by people where there is a mutual trust.

Schulz says it better than I can: “If you really want to rediscover wonder, you need to step outside of that tiny, terrified space of rightness and look around at each other and look out at the vastness and complexity and mystery of the universe and be able to say, ‘Wow, I don’t know. Maybe I’m wrong.’”

I mentioned earlier the two incidents that happened, and what I’ve learned in the short run from each of them.  The lost billfold taught me that I do need the kindness of strangers to get from Miami to my home; my fall is a teachable moment in progress that I hope to reflect upon in later Shaeffer’s Forays, but one thing I’ve learned is Peggy and I have many wonderful friends who have reached out to provide support and I thank all of you.


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4 Responses to The Beauty and Beast of Being Wrong

  1. Don Swoboda says:

    Only one comment on each of your “wrongs”:
    The lost billfold—ever wonder why women carry purses?
    The fall—a friend once told me a fact about doing my own fix-it tasks, “for just a little more you can do it yourself.

    Don’t feel so bad about being wrong my friend, I was wrong once too, 1986 I think.

  2. grahammb says:

    Insightful and humble people who are
    wise enough to see two sides of things make wonderful leaders; sadly, the converse is also true. The inability to consider other points of view kills morale and can turn a great job into a dreaded one in a hurry…..

    And about the light bulbs…Ask Mark how he changes our high-ceiling bulbs. It’s worth every penny of the $19.99! Glad you’re on the mend!

  3. shaeffjm says:

    Thanks Martha, great to hear from you and I should see you at the Ice House soon.

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