When I was formerly practicing Psychiatry and Psychoanalysis, I once had a young woman present to me, who despite all the external trappings of success and a doctorate degree, felt insecure and uncertain of herself. She concluded our initial discussion by saying, “What I would really like as a result of our work is to get to a point of internal smugness without it showing too much.”
It has occurred to me a number of times since that that’s probably what we all want—with some notable variations on that part about how much it shows. My son modeled the subtitles of being right quietly and with dignity. Many years ago he commuted by bicycle to his first job at age 13 at a baseball card shop. He used some of his earnings to purchase 3,500 Craig Biggio rookie cards. I learned of his purchase when he asked me to help him, because the company he ordered the cards from had refused to deliver them. The reason, we discovered, was that the price had already increased from $.03 per card to $.05 per card between his order and the delivery. With a squeeze play, they delivered. Now, just as successfully in his own capital management firm, he invests my money and many others.
There is hardly any more pleasurable an experience than being right about something, especially when it’s out loud, with witnesses.
At times, there are consequences to being right, but with wrong timing. My daughter specializes in her practice on Autism Spectrum Disorders, specifically Asperger’s Syndrome. On one recent visit we were playing with my granddaughter, and when daughter reached out, I noticed a huge bruise on her upper arm. When I asked her about it, she said, “Oh, a four-year old boy who I’m treating didn’t like something I said, so he bit me.”
Our love of being right is really an aversion to being wrong. As we write our life stories, we don’t even like to talk about being wrong in the first person, present tense. When I use an example of a mistake I made when I am training professional coaches, it is always in the past, preferably the more distant the better.
The challenge to confront wrongness is that it not only seems to strip us of our theories, but, momentarily at least, our actual belief in ourselves. When we are wrong about something, we often feel embarrassed or ashamed, as if it is the evidence of social or intellectual failing. The ability to admit being wrong depends on the ability to tolerate uncomfortable emotion, because being wrong is, above all else, an emotional experience. Our mistakes represent an alienation from ourselves, a disruption in our ongoing sense of self, a hiccup of our identity.
Behavioral economics teaches us that we have a sunk cost in our beliefs. Sunk cost refers to the money that we have already spent that cannot be recovered, making us inclined to stay with the process rather than objectively assess. The sunk cost includes the years of having a belief, and our identity associated with it.
Benjamin Franklin addressed this subject in his report to the King of France in 1748: “Perhaps the history of the errors of mankind, all things being considered, is more valuable and interesting than that of their discoveries. Truth is uniform and narrow; it constantly exists, and does not seem to require as much active energy, as a passive aptitude of soul in order to encounter it. But 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, to display all her boundless faculties, and all her beautiful and interesting extravagancies and absurdities.”
When we examine and flexibly embrace error, we do not eliminate it, but learn from it. To know to ask is half the answer.
When we face mistakes with the faith that we will learn something, and the optimism that we will get it right the next time, we create an enduring confidence in our own stories. This perpetual series of occasions for hope keeps us going, with better possibilities always in front of us. Even, perhaps we will be better people in the process. And, justifiably smug.