Don’t Be Afraid to Be Wrong, Be Afraid to Not Know Better

Don’t be afraid to be wrong, be afraid to not know better.

[this post has been updated as I re-wrote it to cross post on Medium]

The other day, I had a brief exchange with a new friend of mine, she had posted on Facebook asking why Nikola Tesla isn’t featured more in history textbooks, since he contributed so much in the world of science and technology. I posted the “Are there TWO Nikola Teslas?” video (from PBS Idea Channel on YouTube) in response, and she wrote me back to say “that was really interesting, good points to consider!”. I wrote back to say that I really love that channel because it consistently challenges the ideas I hold in my head and makes me have to work harder to be confident in what I think and believe. Which I think is good, because if I’m wrong about something, I want to know. Everyone should. It means you can fix it and become a wiser, more well-rounded person.

I watch a lot of YouTube videos, and do a lot of reading. There is a lot of information out there, and the more of it I have in my brain, I figure the more likely I am to be well-informed so I don’t say or do stupid things. Because no one wants to say or do stupid things, right?

Recently I was talking to another friend of mine about the idea of people who are super passionate about stuff, to the point of extremism. Whether it be something like religion, a sport, a fictional series, whatever.

I’m pretty passionate about learning. Fortunately that seems to be easier to be positive and proactive about. No one is going to get mad at you for proclaiming “learning is great!”. My friend and I had a good chat about the idea of believing very strongly in something, but still being moderate in talking about it or showing your enthusiasm. Basically, being militant about any cause is more likely to turn people off than bring them in. Unless they already agree with you, in which case nothing is gained.

In my experience, militants are often not the most pleasant people to deal with. Sometimes that’s because they are not emotionally well-adjusted, or they may be emotionally immature. I’ve been there. They basically want everyone to think and feel exactly the same way they do RIGHT NOW, or else. This is because they are 100% convinced that they’re right. And that can be dangerous.

Once I realized this (and that I’d been guilty of it more than once myself), I immediately started making efforts to pull back and calm down. When topics come up that would make me feel like getting militant, I have to actively catch and moderate myself. I do still feel very strongly about it, but getting worked up and freaking out doesn’t help anything. The golden rule must prevail.

It’s not wrong to be moderate, it’s not a sign of weakness, it doesn’t mean you care less, it just means you have the good sense to give others the chance to hear you out rather than try to beat your ideas into their head. And if someone decides to adopt your idea, it’s far more likely to stick than if you try and force it in. That’s part of why shaming people doesn’t work so well — they have to want to change for themselves. Shame can work as a motivator, but it’s not the best kind. It’s a negative motivation.

My friend and I also talked about how you can (and should) be willing and able to change your mind. In politics, “flip flopping” is seen as a bad thing, but there’s a difference between flip-flopping to curry favor, and changing your honest opinion or stance based on a thoughtful re-assessing of new information. That’s a sign of maturity and self evolution — admitting that you didn’t have all the necessary facts before. And this is part of why I read constantly and try to absorb as many different ideas and perspectives and explanations for things as I can. I want to find the angle I hadn’t considered before that might change my mind and make me say “now I know better”.

I realized that a crucial part of this is the ability to recognize and acknowledge the difference between logic and emotion. For example, for most of my life, I was pro-death penalty. You get one life to use (or abuse) as you see fit — your own life — and if you take someone else’s life, then in my opinion, you don’t deserve your own life anymore. But then a friend of mine made a logical argument to me – that it’s not always possible to be 100% sure whether or not the person being executed is actually guilty (thus you are potentially killing an innocent person), not to mention technically the person who flips the switch is now taking another person’s life, regardless of the justification.

I can’t deny the logic in that argument, and while emotionally I still feel the same way as I did before, logically I can no longer support capital punishment (or at least, I will refuse to push the button if it’s up to me). Similarly, American Vice-President Joe Biden (whether you like him or not), has said while he believes that life begins at conception, he refuses to impose his belief on women. Same idea, his emotion says yes, but his logic says no (it’s not his body or his choice).

The mistake I had made before was thinking that my logical feeling constituted a logical argument. I mean, yes it’s logical to feel the way I did, but there was non-emotional logic out there that trumped my feeling. Once I learned that you can choose to act in spite of your feelings when you have better information, it became a lot easier to assess things on an individual basis to decide what logic said vs what emotion said and which one makes the most sense.

I’m not saying I never listen to my gut. I am an INFJ after all. I recognize that both gut and brain are fallible. You should never rely solely on one or the other, and neither one should always win out.

Over time, I’ve changed my mind enough times on enough topics to know there’s always a chance that I’m wrong about any given thing. But again, knowing that I could be wrong doesn’t mean I lack confidence in my position, it just means I know from experience that there may be information out there that I haven’t found and considered yet.

People get called “stupid” when they don’t know something, but what is actually stupid is knowing better and choosing not to act on it, or choosing to remain ignorant.

You can be wrong for decades, but as long as you accept the “right” information when you find it, that’s still an improvement. Don’t be afraid to be wrong, be afraid to not know better.

In the words of Matt Dillahunty : “I want to believe as many true things and as few false things as possible”. That’s as good a goal as any, I think.

Care to share your thoughts?