photo of men having conversation

The Wisdom of Being Wrong

If only things were that simple. If only events could be packaged into neat containers of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ or ‘good’ and ‘evil’. Despite our proclivities towards binary and dualistic thinking, life is a whole lot messier. Many circumstances are morally ambiguous and uncertain.

Being in this metaphorical ‘grey’ area of not knowing can be uncomfortable. We crave certainty and straightforward responses. We are inclined to desperately pick a side of a debate in order to gain a sense of security.

Egocentric and polarized thinking has unfortunately become far too pervasive in our culture. The consequences are becoming more apparent, and are dire. We see it in our civic discourse, on the news, and on heated exchanges on social media. Anger only perpetuates more anger from the other side.

What can be done to help us break out of the cycle?

One answer comes from the ancient Greek philosopher Socrates. Socrates was notorious for roaming around the town square in ancient Athens and revealing the many inconsistencies of the beliefs of many prominent figures in his day. He was famous for his style of questioning in which he would make people begin to reassess the foundations of their values and beliefs. Socrates wasn’t interested in persuasion, but rather breaking through rigid thought patterns held by others.

His famous sentiment ‘the only thing I know is that I know nothing’ points to the value of humility and honesty. Humility involves one acknowledging that one’s viewpoint may be wrong. Instead of sternly refusing to change one’s view, the humble person welcomes other perspectives that they may have not considered. Maybe they initially didn’t have all the facts or evidence, or haven’t looked at the issue from a different lens. Moreover, an individual who is humble is able to cultivate a degree of open-mindedness and curiosity.

It may be the case in some instances that people rarely do change their minds. Thus, doesn’t it make sense to try to approach the conversation with an attempt to truly understand the deeper psychological factors influencing another’s viewpoint. Maybe, at a deeper level, you have much more common with someone than you thought. After all, we are all humans guided by many of the same fears, hopes, and desires.

This ‘win at all cost’ mindset stems from our hypercompetitive society. However, this approach to discourse and conversation leads to divineness.

Perhaps we could restore social cohesion with a focus on dialogue rather than debates. Unlike debate, those who enter into dialogue with others don’t start from the assumption that there is only one right answer which must be defended. Moreover, a dialogue is collaborative as opposed to combative.  A dialogue is entered with a hope to learn from others allowing one to be open to different and new perspectives.

Think of a debate being similar to a sports game where there is a clear winner or loser. A dialogue resembles musical improvisation where one musician doesn’t aspire to be better than his band mates, but flow and riff off of others. They build on the musical expressions and ideas. They are listening and they are attentive to what the song requires.

Like many I hold opinions and desire to live by my values. I do however want to have the ability to question myself when I feel I am holding too strong convictions. There is wisdom to being wrong. We learn. We grow. We connect to and listen to the knowledge of others.

We learn more from people who challenge our thought process than those who affirm our conclusions

Adam Grant, Think Again: The Power of Knowing What You Don’t Know 

If you are interested in my exploration of similar topics you can check out my series on my personal blog: A Path Towards Restoring Good Faith Dialogues – A Life of Virtue: Philosophy as a Way of Life

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23 thoughts on “The Wisdom of Being Wrong

  1. Thank you for posting this great piece, Andrew. I’m leery of being around persons who “know.” Your point about the difference between dialogue and debate is also well made. Right now in Ottawa, my countrie’s capitol, we are witnessing the very dark and negative effects of someone entrenched in opinion. I’ll be looking forward to your next post.

  2. Wise words Andrew. Imagine a ‘We’ society where humility and honesty prevail vs. today’s ‘Me’ society of division and deception.

  3. Some excellent points.
    I’m reminded of how essential it is to be ‘heard’, in addition to being ‘listened to’. Far too frequently many of us pay superficial attention whilst awaiting our time slot to add our opinion.

  4. A wonderful perspective. If conversations and exchanges could only stick to the topic of discussion instead of becoming a clash of egos and rigid thinking, there would be lesser problems and more progress in so many spheres of life. When the first step is to counter another’s argument, then the second step had already left the path of communication. One cannot go further when one’s vision is limited to opposition. I love how you compare effective dialogue to creating music. It must be clear and have a sustainable and pleasant melody. There is no right or wrong, there’s only a variety of thoughts and experiences. Who are we to judge what we haven’t come across before? No two circumstances or situations can ever be the same. Thanks for sharing such an enlightening post. 🙂

  5. I love your analogy of a dialog being like music improvisation. What a great picture this paints! Listening and attending to what comes out of each others instruments! Love this. Great post, Andrew.

  6. Great post – always a great reminder to listen. No one has all of the answers adn it is far better to be kind and curious then “righ” and arrogant.

  7. The “Socratic Method” is never to confront someone with a direct statement, but instead to ask intelligent questions that may lead them to a different point of view.

  8. I agree with many of your point here about the importance of listening, learning, questioning oneself, humility, stepping away from the hypercompetitive “right at all costs” mindset prevalent in today’s society, etc.

    Where I don’t agree with you is that I think your title is misleading. To me, it’s not that there is a wisdom in being wrong, and especially not in clinging to belief in something that is wrong. The wisdom is in the questioning, learning, admitting that one is wrong, and then changing. I think your title is attributing the wisdom to the wrong step of the process.

    1. Thank you for pointing that out, yes that is a great point. Perhaps the title isn’t the best in pointing in what I am trying to get across

  9. Excellent piece. Thanks for writing about Socrates and Socratic dialogues. When I was in graduate school, I read virtually all of the dialogues. We know that the great Greek thinker referred to himself as a “gadfly” and paid dearly for engaging in the sort of behavior you mention in your piece. Why is it that those who claim not to know scare others so? Why is asking questions viewed as so subversive?

  10. You make some great points here. Often, something I have observed, is when we have a debate or a matter of discord with somebody we take it personally and assume that it is us who is being attacked. Having understood this I try not to react when faced with such a situation and see it from a third persons perspective and that has helped me immensely.

  11. I always try to privilege collaboration vs. competition. I don’t know who said: if you want to go fast, go alone; if you want to go far, go together. I want to go far. Thank you for this beautiful post!

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