What's the biggest mistake you've made?
It’s funny. No one ever wants to admit they’ve been wrong, but apparently we all want everyone else to admit that they were wrong. The latest example: The final question in the Miss Universe contest was “What is one big mistake you’ve made in your life, and what did you do to make it right?” The woman favored to take the top prize said she’d never made a major mistake. Well, as you may have guessed, she just had. The judges didn’t like her hubris, and she ended as an also-ran.
Too bad she hadn’t read the new book by Kathryn Schulz, Being Wrong, in which the author delves into our reluctance to admit that we’ve made errors. Emotionally, as Schulz explains, we have a great deal of difficulty taking ownership of a mistake. Not only do we not want to acknowledge it publicly, we really don’t even like admitting to ourselves that we have erred, because it shakes our self-confidence, and we believe it hurts our credibility with others.
The problem, writes Schulz, is that we are wrong in how we look at the concept of being wrong. We see an error as the opposite of the correct answer, as “an obstacle in the path toward truth” when in fact it is “the path itself.”
She notes that “the pivotal insight of the Scientific Revolution” was that “errors do not lead us away from the truth. Instead, they edge us incrementally toward it.” Or more simply stated, as we all know, you learn from your mistakes. That’s why we have internships, apprenticeships, and on-the-job training. All of these situations provide us with chances to make all our rookie blunders before we are really expected to be fully responsible.
We cherish too much, however, the moment when our peers no longer consider us a novice. We should never think we’ve arrived at a point where we are beyond making mistakes. And we should be wary of that feeling of certitude, of really knowing something.
Schulz writes of a condition called Anton’s Syndrome in which someone who is physically blind remains certain they have sight. While that is a medical condition, more often in life, it’s an attitude or an intangible belief, perhaps about how a problem should be solved, that creates such certainty. But the medical case serves as a strange and striking example of how wrong one can be, despite that inner sense of certitude. “That’s the problem with the feeling of knowing: it fills us with the conviction of rightness whether we’re right or not,” Schulz writes.
When security professionals gather for the ASIS International 56th Annual Seminar and Exhibits in Dallas this month, the opportunities for learning will abound. But let’s not forget how much we can learn from our mistakes—as long as we first learn to admit we’ve made them.