The Power Of Admitting You’re Wrong

Here’s something that I think we all already know: Failure, while unpleasant, is necessary for learning and growth. No one, for example, hits a home run their first time at bat. Over the course of many practice sessions, we reduce the number of errors we make until we arrive at some level of proficiency. But we’ll never reach that level of proficiency without the many failures that lead up to it.

Those of us who accept this truth live our lives a little differently than others. We try more things because we’re not afraid to fail. It’s okay if we don’t succeed, because most of the time “failure” just means we learn something. So we attempt to learn more languages, try to play more musical instruments, try out new techniques at work, and so on. We don’t succeed at everything we try, in fact, we typically fail more often than we succeed. But who cares? We’ll never grow if we don’t fail a few times.

This morning, I was thinking about how similar this is to admitting when you’re wrong. For most of us, admitting when we’re wrong is highly unpleasant. We are often emotionally invested in being right. Our society is highly judgmental and intolerant of “stupidity,” and so we don’t want to get caught being the “stupid” one. We’ve often built elaborate paper castles around our beliefs, too, so if we happen to get something important wrong, then that means we have to re-build the whole castle. That’s not pleasant. And also, we’re so proud sometimes; too proud to be bested in an argument by people we’re not always fond of.

But something magical happens when you start to admit when you’re wrong more often. To be sure, the first few times you do it, it can still feel exactly as humiliating as you supposed it was, especially if our interlocutors are unpleasant jerks who don’t mind rubbing our faces in it. But then again, there are always those who make a big deal out of other people’s failures, and once we grow comfortable with failure, those naysayers stop bothering us. Well, the same thing happens with admitting when you’re wrong. Eventually, even the naysayers don’t bother us anymore.

We cease to be bothered because we’ve developed a habit of readily discarding wrong beliefs and quickly adopting the correct ones. It’s nice to be right, but it’s even better to know more right things today than you did yesterday. So, first we stop being bothered by those who think it’s a big deal that we stand corrected; second, we start looking forward to the new things we’ll learn today.

Perhaps we still seek out the same kinds of debates and arguments we used to have, but instead of searching for ways to be right, we start to approach conversations as a form of confirmation.

“I think that X is true,” you say, “isn’t that right?”

The other person says, “No, you idiot, it’s clearly Y.”

You rejoin, “Well, here is the information I had in mind. Doesn’t this say that X is true? Do I have the wrong information, or have I drawn the wrong conclusion?”

“Here’s some information that says Y,” your compatriot retorts, “and I trust this information a lot more.”

You try again, “Now we have some information that says X, and some that says Y. How can we reconcile this information?”

It’s been my experience that, at this point, my interlocutor will either honestly engage in the reconciliation process, and we’ll both learn something new, or my interlocutor will continue arguing his point without any interest in engaging my questions. If the latter, I usually wind down my involvement in the exchange. You can’t beg someone to pay attention to what you’re saying if they’re committed to ignoring you.

But in the old days, before I was happy to admit when I was wrong, leaving the conversation would have stung. I was right, and that jerk didn’t see it! Now it doesn’t sting, I just move on with my life. Maybe someone else will correct me some time. Or maybe there’s nothing to correct. Either way, that other person won’t help, so why waste the mental energy on wishing that they would?

Of course, our personal relationships really improve when we’re ready to admit wrongdoing whenever it occurs. We never have to waste another moment of life being too proud to apologize and keeping distance between us. But we also gain confidence in the things we know to be true. That is, if our loved ones are definitely wrong, we don’t have to get mad and scream about it. We can simple, and calmly, and consistently, present the evidence in favor of our position. No matter how angry someone else gets, we can stick to the matter at hand, and lead the conversation toward our own undoing. “If I’m wrong, then show me how, and I will admit to it immediately.” Then the other person realizes that he doesn’t have to be mad, he just has to present his case.

And finally, we gain compassion for others. They themselves might be wrong, and they may have more trouble than you do admitting to it. Your compassion can show them that your relationship is a safe place to admit to being wrong, that it won’t diminish the love between you, and that your lives are better when everyone knows the truth than when somebody wins an argument.

The practice is worth it. Practice admitting when you’re wrong.

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