The art of being wrong
The two-ship fleet searching for the fabled Northwest Passage has hit a block, literally, a massive block of ice, damaging HMS Erebus’s propeller and cutting her efficiency by half.
It’s September 1846, and the European hunt for the illusory marine trade route has been going for nearly 350 years, since John Cabot first attempted to sail it.
AMC’s series, The Terror, based on a fictional retelling of the real-life naval catastrophe, takes the viewer on a melancholy journey of what may have transpired when the two ships disappeared over 150 years.
In Episode One, John Franklin and Francis Crozier, the captains of Erebus and The Terror, respectively, gather with their men to assess the propeller’s damage and forge a plan to continue their mission to be the first to sail through the famed Northwest Passage.
Franklin insists they continue, albeit slowly, with The Terror leading the way and cutting the ice ahead of them. He is confident that they are no more than two weeks from the entrance to the Northwest Passage. Glory and fame await them after their pioneering feat.
But Crozier is not convinced, and if the captain is wrong, he argues, they may not survive. With a beautiful slice of dramatic foreshadowing, he adds,
But no, Franklin holds his ground and believes that he has both the weather and god on his side. They are two weeks from finding the holy grail.
But he is wrong, and from the moment Franklin’s body is ripped in two and thrown into an ice burial pit, things keep getting worse. Cannibalism and revolt eventually follow; conditions long rumoured to have haunted the expedition.
The series dramatizes the argument between the two captains, each holding a different belief. Franklin will not entertain the possibility of being wrong. Crozier thinks they are taking a catastrophic risk.
It seems that far more dangerous than being wrong is the unshakeable belief that you are right. You can manage most errors, but not if you won’t admit that it is possible and assume success before you achieve you may have wandered into risky territory.
I think of the positivity gurus who claim that all you need to do is believe in yourself.
I think of the 2008 financial crash and the banks being ‘too big to fail’, yet fail they do, time and time again.
Franklin was fresh from a disaster in Tasmania where he was politically betrayed and recalled back to England.
The stakes of failing this mission were the last chance at salvaging his reputation and restoring his sense of self. Sadly, the rewards were much lower and the stakes much higher than this for the 129 people on the expedition.
GETTING IT WRONG FOR MORTALS
What does getting it wrong mean for you?
For me, it’s having an idea rejected, saying something I shouldn’t at a client meeting, not getting the job because of pricing, under pricing a job and spending too much time on it.
It’s all very shallow stake territory.
I hear of businessmen upset for days because they’ve misspelt something in an email.
Employees terrified about sending a post on social media in case they’ve got it wrong.
Some horrible politicians who never admit they are wrong; even where there is a mountain of facts stacked against them.
Why do we choose death, deceit, fear, mediocrity rather than just admitting when we are wrong, either to ourselves or others?
Pulitzer Award-winning journalist Kathryn Schultz offers a rebrand of the sensation in her book, Being Wrong; Adventures In The Margins Of Error.
The book is a refreshing reminder of what being wrong is really about and how not to avoid it but to embrace it.
But first, let’s take a look at the Art of Being Right.
Schopenhauer and Controversial Dialectic
The theme of the essay is controversial dialectic,
“the art of disputing in such a way as to hold one’s own, whether one is in the right or the wrong. (p3)”
Schopenhauer’s exact tone for the essay is debated amongst scholars; did the revered philosopher really mean that one should abandon a search for truth at the expense of winning an argument?
In the A.C. Grayling adaption, The Art Of Always Being Right, he poses the question, “Did he intend it to be an exercise in irony?”
Grayling suggests that the essay combines a genuine pessimism about the human propensity for truth and honesty with a tongue in cheek satire, exposing the baseness and hypocrisy around rhetoric.
Schopenhauer separates the art of being right from the search for truth.
If human nature were not base but thoroughly honourable, we should in every debate have no other aim than the discovery of truth;
His 38 methods for consistently winning an argument seem both playful and like a dark warning of the trickery available to those who are content to be right; at any cost.
The final strategy for winning the argument, number 38 in the essay is,
“The last trick is to become personal, insulting, rude as soon as you perceive that your opponent has the upper hand and that you will come off worst. It consists in passing from the subject of dispute, as from a lost game, to the disputant himself and in some way attacking his person.”
If being right is on such shaky and contested ground as Schopenhauer suggests, what does this say about its opposite state, being wrong?
Perhaps if right can be arrived at by such means that there is an equally misplaced emphasis of the wrongness of being wrong?
THE ART OF BEING WRONG
There are layers of subjectivity to being right and wrong.
As Schopenhauer says,
John Franklin, Francis Crozier and all those who invested in the arctic expedition were wrong because it was only in 1906 that a small boat was able to navigate through the Northwest passage, making it an unfit marine trade route.
If we’re to believe the conversations presented to us in The Terror, it wasn’t simply for being wrong that the men came to their awful death, it was for failing to contemplate that they could be wrong and consequently not having a contingency idea.
The plan Crozier suggested in the first episode of combining resources and re-routing their course may have avoided their fate.
So, if believing you are right is suspect and prone to Controversial Dialectic, or worse, treacherous where should you turn?
In Kathryn Schultz’s book, she takes us on a journey from biblical times through to present-day events with adventures, philosophies and anecdotes all around the theme of being wrong.
She doesn’t avoid, as I have in this blog, discussing the awkward and empty feeling that one has after discovering they were wrong, but she wraps it up in an essential element of being a human being.
As Saint Augustine declared,
Not something treacherous, or to be denied, or lie to avoid, Schultz promotes embracing being wrong in accepting the quality of being fallible and an essential occurrence on the path of learning and growth.
“Far from being a sign of intellectual inferiority, the capacity to err is crucial to human cognition. Far from being a moral flaw, it is inextricable from some of our most humane and honourable qualities: empathy, optimism, imagination, conviction, and courage.”
Now isn’t that something to celebrate beyond the five minutes of fame that being correct accords you, a feeling that won’t shipwreck you or ruin you or make you give up whatever endeavour you are striving for?
An opening quote in the book wraps up the beauty and possibility that exists when you venture forth; accepting that you may be right or wrong, but you will find something along the way.
“Error is endlessly diversified; it has no reality but is the pure and simple creation of the mind that invents it. In this field, the soul has room enough to expand herself and display all her boundless faculties, faculties, and beautiful and interesting extravagancies and absurdities.”
– Benjamin Franklin
PUSHING BEYOND RIGHT AND WRONG
Beyond having a focus on being right lies an entirely different landscape.
One where the possibility of being wrong and the certainty of being fallible lends you a level of confidence that the stage fright feeling of needing to be right robs you of.
Dispensing with the fear of being wrong will set you free and set you up as a brave pioneer, boldly searching for truth and endeavour and knocking down fears of being wrong along the way.
The opportunity cost of never being wrong is that you can never learn and grow because nothing cements in a lesson like a mistake made.
New opportunities lie beyond the land of certainty and, if you embrace them with acceptance of your fallibility, you don’t have to end up like John Franklin’s crews.
Embracing wrong-ability will give you a growth mindset, and where you may fail the first time around, you’ll be back up on your feet and pushing forward towards your goal.
To close out with one final quote from Schultz’s
“In this optimistic vein, embracing our fallibility is simply a way of paying homage to, in the words of the late philosopher Richard Rorty, “the permanent possibility of someone having a better idea.”