On Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error

Self-proclaimed “wrongologist” Kathryn Schulz writes a witty and compelling book about her unusual perspective on being wrong. The idea of error as bad, Schulz argues, “is our metamistake: we are wrong about what it means to be wrong. 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 honorable qualities: empathy, optimism, imagination, conviction, and courage.” Embrace your mistakes and rejoice in the way they shape you, she says, for, if there is one thing we cancount on, it is that mistakes will happen.

What does it look like to prepare our homeschool for mistakes?

Be Good at Listening

Start by listening to your children in a more complete, whole way. “In love, as in medicine, as in life more generally, listening is an act of humility. It says that other people’s ideas are interesting and important; that our own could be in error; that there is still plenty left for us to learn.” When you listen with this kind of attitude, children pick up on your respect. Schulz references the thoughtful remark of author Harville Hendrix, “[L]istening is one of the best ways we can make room in our lives for our own fallibility.” We must “listen and listen and listen and listen” if we hope to change our relationships for the better.

Being Wrong is a Natural and Ongoing Process

Show your children that you are often wrong. “Wrongness is a natural and ongoing process, and we are not deformed but transformed by it.” Show your children that you are optimistic about how these errors will improve you. “In the optimistic model of wrongness, error is not a sign that our past selves were failures and falsehoods. Instead, it is one of those forces, like sap and sunlight, that imperceptibly helps another organic entity—us human beings—to grow up.” Create a safe harbor for mistakes, where your identity and self-image isn’t brought into crisis because something goes wrong. Schulz cautions us, “[W]e should be able to be wrong from time to time, and be at peace with other people’s occasional wrongness, and still love and be loved.” Making mistakes and being wrong does not make us unlovable people.

Being Wrong Is Inextricable From Learning

For children, learning is often blended with being wrong. Schulz is convinced that children naturally learn well from mistakes. “Forming theories about the world, testing them, and figuring out where they went wrong is the very stuff of childhood. In fact it is, literally, child’s play.” A child’s learning is motivated by their theories, even when they aren’t correct. “Moreover, recent work in developmental psychology suggests that error might play the same role in the lives of children as it does in the lives of scientists—inspiring them to sit up and take notice, generate new theories, and try to understand what is going on around them. Being wrong, in other words, appears to be a key means by which kids learn, and one associated as much as anything with absorption, excitement, novelty, and fun.” Schulz isn’t making  the claim that learning is contingent on error. Rather, she is encouraging us to incorporate the experience of being wrong to improve our momentum in learning.

Accommodate Doubt

Giving room for questions can actually improve our core beliefs. “The more we can accommodate ambivalence, counter-evidence, and doubt, the more stable our beliefs and identities will be.” Use doubt as a teacher, Schulz insists. To make this point, Schulz reminds her readers of Socrates’ teaching methods. “When Socrates taught his students, he didn’t try to stuff them full of knowledge. Instead, he sought to fill them with aporia: a sense of doubt, perplexity, and awe in the face of the complexity and contradictions of the world.” Yet, Schulz cautions, there are different kind of doubts—those of indecision, insecurity, apprehension, or indifference. This doubt as a teacher isn’t that kind of doubt. “This is an active, investigative doubt: the kind that inspires us to wander onto shaky limbs or out into left field; the kind that doesn’t divide the mind so much as multiply… the doubt of curiosity, possibility, and wonder.” This doubt will foster new ideas. By being willing to allow for queries, suspicions, and uncertainties, we create  a situation that is kept fresh and full of awe.

Allow Being Wrong To Change Us For the Better

Remembering we were wrong in the past, and knowing we could easily be wrong again, “reminds us to treat other people with compassion, to honor them in their possible rightness as well as their inevitable, occasional wrongness.” Through our own erring nature, we are able to show kindness toward the mistakes of another. Also, we don’t have to believe they are flawed because of their inaccuracies and miscalculations. Schulz inspires our compassion. “Instead of taking their errors as a sign that they are ignorant or idiotic or evil, we can look to our own lives and reach the opposite conclusion: that they are, like us, just human.” We want to forgive in others what we find in ourselves. “Our mistakes, when we face up to them, show us both the world and the self from previously unseen angles, and remind us to care about perspectives other than our own.” Being wrong isn’t something to stop our world; it widens the view and enhances our vision.

The Human Mind Is Unique in Being Wrong

Schulz suggests that we are formed by our errors. “Being wrong doesn’t just make us human in general; it also helps make each of us the specific person we are. In our inability to get things exactly right, in the idiosyncrasies of our private visions of the world, the outline of selfhood appears.” Basing her observations on evolutionary theory, Schulz argues that errors in the replication of the genetic sequence create the variations that allow the species as a whole to adapt and survive. “Such errors literally keep their hosts alive.”

Use Humor

Throughout the book, Schulz uses examples of mistakes that make you laugh out loud. She points out that “wrongness and comedy are entwined at the roots.” Some of our funniest jokes begin as mistakes. Consider this quote from Moliere: “The duty of comedy is to correct men by amusing them.” Perhaps you may realize that humor and amusement like this can boost recovery from a mistake.

The Journey of a Wrongologist

Reading this book may shift your perspective on your errors and those of your homeschooling efforts. “Being right may be gratifying, but in the end it is static, a mere statement. Being wrong is hard and humbling, and sometimes even dangerous, but in the end it is a journey, and a story….” I personally found it very encouraging to consider Schulz’s thoughtful, detailed examples of companies, communities, and people that had journeyed through large mistakes. Neither allow yourself to think you are always right nor to fall into paralysis with the fear of being wrong.

For more information on Being Wrong, visit beingwrongbook.com, and/or see author Karen Schulz’s TED talk.

Originally published in the November-December 2015 VaHomeschoolers Voice

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