Essay:How I Stopped Worrying and Learned to Love Being Wrong
However sensible my house’s philosophy was, the character of the inhabitants was less than Spock-like. In the clash of personalities, there was an intense pressure to be correct. Being wrong, making a mistake, was evidence of thoughtlessness to be discouraged. Don’t get me wrong: I came from a very stable, loving house of intelligent people. But nobody on this planet has ever experienced the mythical ‘good childhood.’ You know, the kind that has rose-tinted glasses pre-installed. There are probably households more peaceful than mine, but also ones that are less. Like everything else, my situation is really just one shade of gray to be compared to other shades of gray.
So even things like idle mistakes were penalized. Thankfully, not with anything so drastic as a backhand. But with the staring eyes, barked displeasure, and deep frown of judgement. By the end of middle school I neurotically dreaded being wrong. But I made many of them, anyway. Sometimes it was just human error, or a failure at memory retention. Other times my short-term wants got in the way of my long-term sense. And so the story of negative reinforcement went on. I hated it when I erred.
This is why I am not a math major.
School was certainly no help. In the early years, I was miles and miles ahead of everybody else. I could read fairly well in kindergarten. I remember being bored out of my mind in first grade while everybody else was struggling with phonics. I was already a little science and history nut: my house is filled to the brim with history books, and my own shelf was bricked in wall-to-wall with dinosaurs in the first place which was pretty much half of what they thought they could teach to tinychildren in terms of science.
Math was another story, math was hard for me. But I suspect it was at least partially because little me already was walking on the moon in the first few years and had never encountered actual memorization or work before. To this day I still am embarrassingly slow with math, although my grasp of basic skills, statistics, geometry, is solid. Precalculus and trigonometry are still difficult to me to this day. There are vast swaths of the multiplication table that even now I am incapable of memorizing. I remember in elementary school when they did not allow calculators on tests, I made incredible lines of lighting-fast addition down the sides of my papers. Seven-plus-seven-plus-seven up until 70, or four until 40. 36 is still my favorite number; it is one of the few I can conjure up at will. Imagine six-times-six-is-36, repeated one-hundred times on paper by a terrified little me, desperately trying to retain at least one value in time for a math test.
(I know that all of you math majors, professional programmers, and other sorts are probably laughing hysterically at me by now. I laugh at me, too; I’ve made peace with my failures, even if they get in the way of some of my hobbies, such as web design and other forms of coding. To compensate for my own inability, I treat all math with extreme caution: double-checking and triple-checking anything I produce and methodically going over statistics and proofs with patience unnatural to me in practically any other task I undertake. If I ever make a serious mistake in math, please not only correct me but explain how the correct answer is obtained, and I will be delighted to learn. I find I am somewhat better at it now than I was in school.)
So what does all of this have to do with anything? Math was the area where I was always wrong. I would tiptoe into my father’s office and dejectedly present him with my math work. I was not allowed to pass in any homework that had incorrect answers on it, you see. Inevitably, at least one problem out of the common twenty or thirty was somehow wrong, and small me could never handle it. It was just the same as if I had dropped a plate or if I had forgotten my lunchbox somewhere. I am loathe to place the blame on my parents but I can’t help but to do so, at least for those first few formative years. Glaring at a child and snarling that they are not right is not going to somehow discipline them into not being wrong. Oh, father. Understanding of the material is required to fix mistakes. He’d say that some problems were wrong and hand it back to me. He’d not say which ones were wrong, or what mistakes I made. I can see his point of view now, and really it was probably a decision as wise as any other. He meant to make me go through and evaluate each problem, and discover the errors myself.
Little me didn’t see things his way. Without knowing which of the bunch were wrong, the whole assignment could have been wrong, bad, stupid, and it was all my fault. And I’d plod sadly upstairs to try and fix it, because I would not be allowed to pass it in unless all the answers were correct. I would then go through every problem again. I would get the same answers, not knowing what I did incorrectly. Was there some magical difference between a right problem and a wrong problem? I didn’t know. I would bring the assignment down to Dad, and he’d send me right back up again. I’d try again, he’d send me back up again... Some nights this would take upwards of two to three hours before I somehow produced the correct answers out of (what to little me felt like) thin air. I did as badly on the tests as you can imagine, and then that bad grade was just one more wrong thing on my plate.
Don't like being told you are wrong? Solution: be right all the time.
I thought Ms. Frizzle was a sham. Get messy? Make mistakes? Was she daft? Who would ever want that? Why would anyone even entertain the possibility of bringing so much suffering and humiliation on oneself?
And so I set out in my learning to learn the right way of doing things, the first time. It didn't always work out that way, but I suppose it was a valuable quality to have as a teenager. It helped me to avoid most of the obviously-wrong ideas that a lot of my peers held. That definitely kept me out of trouble.
Except when it came to arguments.
One of my most vivid experiences of my pre-teen life that I can recall is the only time I ever got an in-school suspension. I got in a shouting match in class with a classmate. My library book had gone missing, you see, and terrible YA-lit fantasy like Dragon’s Blood were serious business for me at the time. I heard across the room that a classmate I disliked was bragging he got the last copy of Dragon’s-something, and that enraged me. I knew that out school library had only one copy of Dragon’s Blood. He must have stolen it from me! I was so sure and convinced of it! I confronted him about it, and he said that the book he had in his locker was titled Dragon’s Milk.
- "Dragon’s milk?! Are you stupid?! Everybody knows dragons are reptiles! They don’t have milk, and nobody would ever name a book something that stupid!”
The teacher tried to stop me as best she could. She pointed out that anyone can name a book whatever they wanted. But it was too late. I had become a berserker and I was not to be conquered. I would not be wrong this time, I just wouldn’t! The resulting firebomb of a shouting match got me several long detentions and an in-house suspension. The funny thing is that I don’t even remember my parents throwing that big a fit over it. It was almost as if they expected it to happen.
I was totally oblivious to my problem, though. Every ten or fifteen months or so there would be an incident, ranging from trivial to moderate severity that had to do with my intense hatred of being wrong. And it remained that way until I eventually ran into an immovable object to my unstoppable force.
It wasn't a solution.
This person, although a product of different issues, refused to be wrong just like me. Except she managed it in a different way. Instead of seeking out the right answer without going through the process of discovery and correction, she decided that her emotions were correct, no matter the topic. She’d never had a background like me, she’d never been taught to make sense. She’d quote mine, she’d fire off non sequiturs, and she’d play the victim. If you made her feel bad, you somehow were stupider than someone who let her have her way.
And yet, we were similar. There were times where I made mistakes. But those mistakes wouldn’t matter. I had to bring her down. I couldn’t back off. It drove me to tears over and over again. I tried to even elicit her friendship to try and get her to not target me (it was an easy way for her to be ‘right’; all she had to do was outlast me) but it was in vain. She soon developed the idea that ‘’I was out to get HER’’ because I would not submit. Once she painted me as evil, it was all over. There was nothing I could say to her to ever make her back off. Apologies were interpreted as trying to make her look worse because she on principle never apologized. The mutual place where we met was her territory; she had been there longer, and she likely clung to it as a Ego Safe Space in a world that had treated her like nothing but crap.
And then I blew in and threatened her ability to command power in the only place where she had it. I should have realized it from the start, but at the moment I had no concept that submitting to someone didn’t mean I was wrong/had lost/was inferior to the victor. But, exhausted of fighting, I lowered my sword and for the first time in my life just walked away.
But what was this devilry?!
It left me staring backward in wonder and confusion. I was able to separate my emotional involvement and my intellectual involvement for maybe the first time in my life. My mindset as a berserker suddenly seemed as alien and hostile as the mindset of a hornet. The fact that I might not always have to win in order to be an informed person was embarrassingly unintuitive to me. In my mind, people who were correct were obviously the people who should win the argument. Therefore, because I knew things that were true, I should have always won, right? It never occurred to me that being stupid and bad was not the same as losing a fight. It never occurred to me that my ego should not have been hurt by someone lording a home field advantage over me where fact didn't matter.
It all went back to my fear of making mistakes. There was no difference to me between making the mistake and being told I had made a mistake. That was the one thing that my mostly-sane, mostly-rational upbringing had been missing. And then suddenly, as those two concepts became disassociated, the nasty things that were associated with ‘mistake’ blew away like so much smog, too.
Being stupid and bad =/= being wrong =/= being told you are wrong.
It was amazing this simple concept was not even hinted to in school, or by my parents. In school, if you got a question wrong, it meant you got a worse grade. And only stupid kids or kids with problems get bad grades. At home, if you do something stupid, you are told you are wrong before you even understand what being wrong means. It’s very likely many adults don’t understand what being wrong means. We aren’t taught how to be wrong. We’re only taught that it’s stupid and bad to be wrong, because things that are right are not stupid or bad.
It ‘‘can’’ be stupid and bad to be wrong. Specifically, knowingly wrong. But I think enough people here have written about that.
Before that time, I had tried to convince myself that I was a rational human being, but it wasn't true. When they discovered dinosaur feathers, I rejected it because they looked cooler without. I was still in the mindset of little me, the me who argued with security guards in the Museum of Natural History about the T-Rex model standing the wrong way. But when I finally allowed myself to be wrong sometimes, it was like growing up in an instant. Suddenly I could meet hostile people with patience instead of anger. I could mess up without backpedaling like a moron. I could change my views to accept that dromeosaurs probably were fluffy. It felt better than you can imagine, to not have the guilt and the shame and the fury hanging over my head anymore. I am happier than I ever was as a kid for this simple reason.
Being wrong can feel good.
I love being wrong. When somebody corrects me, I go "Ohh, YES! I goofed!" and apologize for my error. If there's something they didn't explain, I try to ask. Sure, if I mess up about something I care about I feel silly. But that's temporary. I can get over with it.
As a journalist, it is not possible to be right 100 percent of the time. There are always interviews that you could not have gotten, people who give false information, new information that surfaces after the story is published, and sources that withhold details. But being able to admit it allows the truth to come to light that much quicker. Admitting fault once has the potential to prevent that mistake from being repeated almost indefinitely. It enables not only publications, but people to be less incorrect on whole over time.
My old riding instructor said to me once that you are are not an equestrian until you fall off at least 10 times. I thought she was crazy, because people who were good at riding horses didn’t fall off. But I now see the insight in her words. We all start out being wrong. As kids, the way we see the world is inherently incorrect due to lack of information or misinformation (No, kissing a girl can’t give you cooties, gentlemen[citation NOT needed]) but when we sit in a classroom and learn about the world, those incorrect ideas are ideally replaced by more accurate ones. Do we have guilt for thinking something else, before? Not usually. So why is it such a big deal if people mess up in the present? Only by remaining willfully ignorant, willfully resistant, or willfully deluded does a person turn a mistake into a lie with intent.
And I'm not perfect. I sometimes can be stubborn. Sometimes I can be irrational. I'm only human. But I try, and everything above is what I've learned in the experience of trying. And most importantly, I just remember the following statements.
It's OK. Don't worry. We're all wrong sometimes, and that's fine. It's learning more and getting over the error that proves what kind of human being you are. And if on some occasion you happen to realize that the human being you are is not the human being you want to be, the first step to change might be as simple as being able to admit,