In praise of being wrong

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Sometimes I think we spend large chunks of our lives trying to avoid being wrong. Taking the route we know and neatly filing away reasons why it’s never quite the right time to take the leap. Asking the easy questions, not the hard ones, and avoiding the opportunities that might take us to the edge of our abilities or cause us to learn something new – where we could fall, where we could fail.

So how can I be right all the time? I can hide myself in busyness, real, or, easier, the imagined kind of busyness that you can find from the comfort of your own bed or sofa in the constant buzz of digital noise… Check Twitter, check online news, repeat as needed ‘til any niggles have been drowned out in a stream of other people’s views.

I can focus on how I would like other people to be and to behave, and what I think other people are doing wrong. I can procrastinate. I can take the easier option. I can say no to things I’d like to say yes to because I can’t foresee all of the implications of saying yes. I can try to mitigate risks. I can check my sources, and I can second guess myself continually.

I can do all of these things and so many more besides to try and stay safe, to try and be right, and it will never, ever be enough. Because out of the thousands of decisions we all make every day, no matter how carefully we try to weigh them, they can’t all be right.

For starters, for every decision we make in every moment to be the best possible decision, we would have to know so much more about the world and the people around us than we ever realistically can. We’d have to know not just what we were saying, but the impact of our words on somebody else, influenced by a lifetime of experiences that we have not shared. We’d have to understand the countless moving parts within our worlds. And we’d need perfect clarity on our own biases, vulnerabilities and motivations.

Instead, we often have to make decisions in the same way that we might try to find our way to the bathroom in the dark in an unfamiliar hotel room – gingerly, alternating between the sense that we have some vague notion of where we’re going and the belief that we are stumbling around in the dark.

There is no safe route through life that I’ve found, where we can spare ourselves and those around us from any pain. And there are relatively few opportunities to make perfectly informed choices. But there are sometimes opportunities to notice when we’ve been wrong, to gently acknowledge our fallibility, and to dust ourselves off and try to do and be better, knowing that this is a process that we’ll inevitable repeat.

Ultimately maybe the peace that we seek in the impossibility of perfection is waiting for us in the last place we’d think to look – when we’ve exhausted all other options and have to hold our hands up and say we were wrong. Because there’s a strange, quiet power in that, and the freedom to make your next move, your next decision, even if you don’t know exactly where it will take you.

From the archives: Why readers lie about pretty much everything.

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