How often do you find that you were completely wrong about an idea you’ve had?
If you’re like most people the answer is probably not very often at all. Psychologists even have a name for it, the confirmation bias, or the tendency of humans to seek out information that confirms their beliefs. People search for more certainty, not less.
This bias has never sat well with me. Every mistake you make becomes a double one. Not only will you end up being wrong about the major idea, but you’ll waste a lot of time and energy trying to defend that false belief. Living in a self-made bubble of certainty is a pricey delusion.
Given this, I try to adopt an attitude of deliberate wrongness–that is allowing, and even encouraging myself, to be wrong about major ideas frequently.
Deliberate Wrongness – You Need Certainty, But it Also Traps You
The standard rationalist approach I’ve seen to the problem of the confirmation bias is to rarely have certainty about anything. Always hedge your bets, wait until more evidence comes in and be agnostic about every major idea in life.
While this rationalist answer may appeal to philosophers and scientific critics, I don’t think it’s a useful solution for anyone who actually wants to do anything. Taking action requires a degree of certainty. If you’re constantly doubting yourself, you’ll often lack the boldness to get started.
The mind lacks the Bayesian ideal of perfectly calculated likelihood percentages weighted on evidence. Instead it tends to fall into two largely fuzzy emotional states of confidence and certainty on the one hand, or doubt and questioning on the other. Never letting yourself be confident means you lack all the positive traits of that mental state of boldness, drive, ambition and enthusiasm.
If you’re launching a business, once you’ve reviewed your options, you need to have almost an obsessive belief that you can make it. The world will provide you with plenty of doubts, so you need to have certainty to get yourself to work hard every day.
Same is true if you’re writing a novel, starting a charity or setting any goal. If you don’t believe your writing will reach people, your mission will impact the world, or you’ll achieve you’re goal, you won’t have the resolution to keep showing up, every day.
The Price of Certainty
But with this certainty comes the trap of the confirmation bias. You’ll see the world through your preconceived ideas, and this often traps you.
I would argue that most plateaus and persistent obstacles in life are not overcome with more discipline and willpower. Yes, discipline is important for kicking yourself over the obvious fences that hold you back. But when you’ve tried everything and still make no progress, what works then?
In almost all of these cases, it’s the unimagined third alternative that provides the answer. Something you hadn’t considered because it violates your beliefs about what is possible and how the world works. Sometimes more hard work is the answer. But hard work can’t help you if you’re in a dead-end of your own false assumptions.
Running this business has been a perpetual example of this.
When I started, I thought the way to succeed was through advertising. I put up ads and tried to make money off them. I started earning about $40 per month, and after several months of work I was able to get up to $100-$250 per month but the ads were clogging the website and I was burning myself out trying to write articles to generate enough traffic.
What got me out of this problem wasn’t writing more and more, and hunting more traffic, but to start writing ebooks. With that step I was able to move from my $200 per month to $700-$1500, after several months of work. Eventually this peaked and I was stuck once more.
Getting out of this step had several dead ends, but setting up a service-based monthly program turned out to be a great solution–going from $1000 per month and worrying about the bills, to $3000-$5000. I don’t know when this direction will eventually peak, but I know that if I wanted to create an even larger business that could impact more people–it will be from doing something I haven’t even considered.
Each of these shifts didn’t just require trying something new–but also fixing incorrect beliefs I had about how my business worked. If I had never revised those beliefs, I’d still be under the assumption that I should be chasing traffic and advertising dollars. And I’d probably be preparing to look for a day job after I graduate.
Practicing Deliberate Wrongness
The rationalist answer to the certainty problem–that you should refrain from being too certain without proper evidence, fails to spur action. Especially in environments where taking action is the only way to get more evidence.
But the stubborn approach of certainty doesn’t work either. Never being wrong almost guarantees never being right. In any interesting pursuit, you’ll almost certainly be wrong from when you start–if those beliefs never get updates, you’ll be like I would have been–struggling to make pennies on advertising dollars.
I believe the alternative to these two extremes is to practice deliberate wrongness. First–to be certain and confident, enough to take actions and pick sides. Second–to celebrate being wrong frequently. Being wrong therefore isn’t a fatal weakness but a sign that your system is working. You can’t escape being wrong, so a lack of bad ideas usually indicates you’re simply protecting your established viewpoints.
What Can a 21-Year Old Know About Life?
I’ve taken the deliberate wrongness as a stance when writing at this blog from Day 1. Where I have strong opinions, I argue them to the best of my ability.
But I’m also acutely aware that any life philosophy developed by a twentysomething will almost certainly have holes. I simply don’t have enough experience. I don’t let that prevent me from sharing my ideas–on the contrary, I think the only way to really make progress on big questions of life is to make big statements and wait for other people to disagree with you.
With each of these ideas though, I also leave myself open to being wrong, and seek out ideas that disagree with me. I try to read books from authors with whom I disagree with. I pay most attention to commenters who argue against an article I’ve written.
The Pursuit of Deliberate Wrongness
There are two parts to the pursuit of deliberate wrongness. First, celebrate whenever you’re wrong about an idea. This goes against the natural bias towards confirmation, so it isn’t an easy practice. Being happy about being wrong takes some effort in the first place.
The second part is to actively seek out the dissenting opinions. I’m not suggesting all opinions are equal and that you should consider the rambling of a deranged cult leader in the same arena as a Nobel laureate. But, if you haven’t read a book which you disagree with in the last few months, you probably aren’t trying hard enough.
Wrongness isn’t always being wrong about stated beliefs. I’d say most of our assumptions go unarticulated. My assumptions about my business model weren’t written down anywhere. They were simply underlying all the actions I took.
Overturning the unstated wrongness is a matter of exposure. If you frequently get outside your circle of influence, then you’re more likely to see those assumptions exposed. Travel allows you to temporarily escape your culture. Also, not all culture is geographical and not all travel needs to change locations.
Be Wrong on One Big Idea, Every Month
Deliberate wrongness applies to the little mistakes in reasoning we make every day, as much as big ideas. But I believe it’s the big ideas where it matters most. These are the ideas that shape the way we live and are the most stubborn to replace.
My goal is to be wrong about one big idea in my life, business or philosophy every month. I know if I’m not having big moments of wrongness at this frequency, it’s almost certainly because I’m ignoring other perspectives, not because I’m infallible.
Ask yourself whether you’ve ever changed your mind (that is, held one opinion strongly and then either had that belief overturned or seriously weakened) on any of these huge ideas of life:
- Political party
- Whether humans have free-will
- Capital punishment
I wouldn’t expect people to change these colossal, often identity-defining, beliefs every month. However, whether you’ve ever flopped or seriously doubted yourself on one of these big beliefs is probably a thermostat for how often you find yourself wrong on smaller issues.