Being wrong is a success

It was my spring semester of 2010 and I presented a PowerPoint about “Sentence Complete-ment” to my Technical Writing class.

I said “Complete-ment” numerous times. I said it with conviction and confidence similar to that of a Shakespearean actor.

Turns out the word was Complement.

Spelled like Complement.

Written out like Complement on all of my slides.

Pronounced like “Complement” (just apparently not by me).

I should mention I was an English Communications major.

It’s been six years and I still feel the embarrassment of how blatantly wrong I was.

In her Ted Talk “On being Wrong”, Kathryn Schulz asked her audience what being wrong feels like. Many of them described how I felt after my “Complete-ment” presentation: shame and dishonor.

After her audience answered, Kathryn quickly corrected everyone. “What you described is what it feel likes when we find out we are wrong…before that, being wrong feels a lot like being right.”

Culturally, Kathryn explains, we celebrate successes. We congratulate winners, scorers, and conquerors . Growing up we got big bold letters highlighting our rightness and dooming our wrongness.

But what if we highlighted being wrong? What if we initially accepted being wrong? I personally have wasted valuable time trying to prove I was indeed right after being proven otherwise. The outcome always ends the same: I’m still wrong.

Remember the old saying: The lessons you learn the best from are the ones you made mistakes in.

Admittedly that’s not an old saying, but maybe collectively we can make it one.

Because of that awful presentation, I now know Complement is not pronounced with that extra “T” I somehow managed to add in during my presentation, but I also know the difference between Complement and Compliment. (Compliment is a flattering remark usually reserved for vibrant red lipstick and shiny heels, while Complement means something goes well together – like blue cheese and dessert wine.)

I’m more knowledgeable now because I was wrong. Mistakes are common. They happen. They can lead to failure. That failure is a learning exercise we can grow from. Remember that old saying, “The lessons you learn best from are the ones you made mistakes in.” (Let’s make this a thing.)

It takes even more time to try and prove something right AFTER we’ve been told it’s wrong. It creates a temporary divide among peers and stalls momentum.

So how can we stop wasting time trying to be right? How can we embrace admitting when we’re wrong instead of fearing it?

Astro Teller speaks just about that in his Ted Talk “The unexpected benefit of celebrating failure”. As the head of “X” (formally Google X) he goes into every project with the goal of proving the hypothesis wrong; hours, teams, money all goes into various projects with the idea of making them fail. The sooner they fail, the sooner they can quit the project and move onto a new one that will possibly not fail.

I learned this lesson as an adult art student in community college. It was the final of drawing 101 and I was 20 minutes into my bottle and horse still life.

My instructor came up to me, flipped the drawing around, and said, “it will be less work to start a new one now than to try and fix one that isn’t proportionally right.”

So, of course, I tried to fix the one that wasn’t proportionally right.

I should have listened to her.

I could not fix my drawing, and was so focused on trying to make the proportions right, I got no chance to concentrate on shading (or at least make it look like an adult drew it.)

But how can we accept being wrong when we are surrounded by a culture of highlighted successes? Astro Teller does this by (positively) highlighting failure. He high-fives teams who “killed a project” because it won’t work and they metaphorically chose to turn the paper over. Bonuses are given to failed projects just like they are given to successful projects.

As the head of the department, he makes his environment safe for “being wrong”, and “mistakes”, and “failure”.

By leading by example, Astro has created a culture that embraces failure and wrongness which leads his team to success.

The moral of the story: don’t feel shame or dishonor when wrong: embrace it. Learn from the failure regardless of how big or small and grow from it.  Not only can it lead to success, but help camaraderie, efficiency, and overall moral.

Just remember the old saying: The lessons you learn the best from are the ones you made mistakes in.