When I was a child and got an answer wrong in class, I’d put my hand down, unfazed, and start cartooning in the margins of my worksheet again.
As a teenager, I’d shrug off my wrongness, faux-casual, while heat bloomed on my cheeks. I’d glance behind me to see if anyone was laughing.
Now, I’m lucky if I put my hand in the air at all.
Some of that self-censorship is just growing older. As children, we’re encouraged not to make much of our errors and experimentations. No one will remember your mistakes but you, they say. As adults, we know that’s rubbish. I still laugh about an old classmate who was certain Hareton Earnshaw in “Wuthering Heights” was a talking horse.
But the consequences of being wrong feel a lot different at 30 than 13. The social stakes are certainly higher, whether in the high-pressure performance culture of the workplace or the high-outrage shame spiral of online activism.
We can’t avoid being wrong. To err is human, after all. So we do the next best thing: We avoid admitting it.
Consider Dong-Pyou Han, the Iowa State University researcher caught falsifying results of a would-be HIV vaccine. For Han, the rewards for being right — grant funding, publication, the esteem of his mentor — seemed worth the risk.
Han will have plenty of time in prison to re-think that gamble — he’s serving a rare four and a half year sentence for fraud. But how much closer to a vaccine might Han be today had he been willing to recognize a failed attempt for what it was: information, a step away from detours and dead ends and a step closer to the truth?
When we receive so much validation for being right, it’s no wonder we don’t want to admit to our errors. But our fear of being wrong may be crippling our chance to get it right. Embarrassed by imperfect efforts, we stop practicing. Fearful of critique, we stop speaking up.
Instead, we deflect responsibility, appending untenable positions with “it’s just my opinion.” Or worse, deflect our embarrassment onto those who call us out. Hop on Facebook during election season and see the potent cocktail of wounded pride and misdirected anger flow freely. It’s a drink I’ve sampled myself, and it always goes down burning.
Divorcing self-righteousness from self-esteem seems a good place to start. No one takes a wrong turn into a cul-de-sac and shouts, “this is where I meant to be all along!” But that same stubbornness pervades our intellectual missteps, encouraging us to treat correction as censure.
When confronted with our wrongness — as we all will be, over and over again — we have a choice. We can resolve to keep quiet the next time. We can dig in deeper, growing roots in poisoned ground. Or we shrug and start cartooning in the margins of our memos.
Getting it right isn’t easy. But panning for truth in the Information Age requires both the courage to speak and the grace to be wrong. And the charity, when we encounter others’ errors, to not read malice in mistakes.
But follow up with me in a few weeks. I might be wrong.
Liz Cook lives in Kansas City, where she is a freelance writer and economic research editor. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.