This is an excerpt from our upcoming book Wisdom in Buddhism
Whatever you believe, remember that you may be wrong.
You need to be fearless about thinking, because sometimes you’re going to be wrong. And when you’re wrong it's going to hurt. The difficult thing about being wrong, is that it feels exactly the same as being right. You feel, clever, righteous, vindicated, honourable, exonerated and smug, just like if you were right. “The moon is made of cheese,” feels exactly the same as, “The moon is not made of cheese,” at least until you learn the truth.
On more than one occasion I have been SO RIGHT, then proved SO WONG. I was absolutely certain about something, then, upon forced examination (or cross-examination by someone else) I have been absolutely, demonstrably and deeply wrong. As my loving partner has observed on more than one occasion, referring to me, “I’ve never seen anyone so absolutely certain in their wrongness.”
Our certainty of ideas and actions is created and reinforced by the reality distortion field that we generate all around us, every day, all day long. Certainty is a trap. It seems, we spend an inordinate amount of time avoiding even thinking about being wrong. It’s not enough that we are actually wrong, but we then get out the duct tape and start tapping over the wrongness so that we don’t even have to think about it!
I know about being wrong. I see other people being wrong all day long! I suppose I get it in the abstract. I know humanity can be wrong about so many things. I suppose I could be wrong about something, but it just doesn’t translate into my everyday thinking - and that’s dangerous.
When I’m right, it feels so much better than being wrong. Being wrong implies improper thinking, improper logic, improper conclusion-drawing. It suggests lazy thinking or poor homework skills. It invites ridicule, suspicion and shame.
In my earlier book, Certainty in Buddhism, I take my reader back to when I was in grade nine. It was my first year in high school and one of my first math tests. I got such a bad mark. Algebra simply eluded me. I just didn’t understand. I get it a little better now, but not then. It was so embarrassing. The teacher actually pointed out how wrong I was by calling me out by name, putting the question(s) up on the chalkboard then making me try to figure it out again! In front of the class - while standing - chalk in hand - at the blackboard. I stood there feeling stupid and looking the same. Powerless to do anything. Fellow students in the front row were whispering to me what to put up, but it didn’t help. I still didn’t have the answer - how the hell could I? I only just got the paper back and didn’t know my errors until two minutes earlier!
The lesson learned that day was not how to solve math problems, but that being wrong is going to result in embarrassment and false accusations of; laziness, sloth, low intellect, poor reading skills and even some allusions about one’s parentage. No sir, being right was far better than being wrong. Alternatively, avoiding having to give an answer was almost as good. Avoidance of having others know you are wrong seems to drive a lot of our behaviours.
In our western society, there is rarely any benefit to being wrong. It’s not rewarded or even tolerated. I’ve watched otherwise reasonable individuals lose it when some poor Starbucks employee gets an order slightly wrong. They complain, shout, call the barista an idiot, question the employees listening skills and intellect. It’s embarrassing for the person doing the yelling and, of course, for the employee. Where is the wisdom in such outrage? Why can’t the person just say quietly, “I think you got my order wrong. Could I have another please?” Their level of outrage just doesn’t match the offence. They’ve been unskillful in their thinking, words and actions.
When we are right, we get accolades, the big grant, the news story, the Pulitzer or Nobel Prize or any number of awards for our good work. No one remembers the number of experiments that ended in inconclusive results before finally hitting upon the right formula, process or methodology for the ultimate success. No one remembers why WD40 has that particular name or why CR49 is the name for the plastic lenses found in most eyewear.
Failure and uncertainty are hidden away and not unpacked until success is achieved – if ever.
When the late Steve Jobs, then head of Apple, introduced the original iPhone, it was an almost immediate success. What we didn’t hear about, at the time, was that the iPhone demonstration he provided at the key note address in January of 2007, was a hair’s width from failure. The infrastructure that had to be set up to demonstrate the simple conference call between himself, Jony Ive and Phil Schiller made the Houston Space Command Centre pale in comparison.
Dozens of telephony technicians from AT&T descended on the Moscone Centre to plug, prod, cajole, jerry-rig, cut, copy and paste the in-house switching components to make that call work. They brought in dedicated switching equipment just for that day for the exclusive use of the iPhone. Even with all that support structure in place, it still did not function 100% of the time during rehearsals and everyone was more than a little worried the demo would not work as planned. According to Jobs, as we read in his biography, it almost didn’t work and he was very nervous as he made the calls, but no one talked about that at the time.
The eyes of the world were focused on Jobs – live! There was no ten-second delay. There would be no retake. The audience in the auditorium was not a bunch of actors, paid to cheer on demand. They consisted of employees, fans, stock holders, critics, reporters, competitors and technology gurus. There could be no “wardrobe malfunctions.” If he made the calls and everything went smoothly then all would be fine. However, if it didn’t go well, Apple stood to lose their first-to-market advantage, their status as technology leader and smartphone innovator. They would be seen as a failure and most assuredly, heads would roll.
For the most part, being wrong isn’t a pretty option in our society and that’s why we place so much emphasis on being right or building and protecting the appearance of being right.