Gracefully Wrong

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In the search for what makes change possible, I’ve found that being comfortable with mistakes is key to correcting them.

Ungracefully Wrong

When people are un-gracefully wrong, their behavior is usually obvious and glaring. Many of us have had the misfortune to encounter ungraceful mistakes. Some people try to cover up their mistakes by hiding the evidence. Others lie and manipulate to make an error look like the right thing. Still others turn the error around and try to convince outsiders that they have made an error of observation.

All too often, people employ anger to aid the cover-up. Watch the evening news and see how often politicians, police, and corporate executives summon righteous indignation when their misdeeds come to light. While sometimes bluster quells criticism, I have to wonder how much more it highlights the mistake itself.

The trouble with all these tactics is that much of the time, errors don’t happen without definite causes and often those causes are actionable: there is a way to change the situation so errors are less likely or outright impossible. Unfortunately, all the effort that goes into covering up errors is unavailable for resolving them in the future. In the case where people convince themselves that there was in fact no error, no progress is possible at all. The only thing less graceful than covering up one error is covering up a series of similar errors. Onlookers shake their heads as the negative pattern becomes clearer and clearer with time.

Intolerance for error has its causes. For many, error is seen as a threat. For those with high levels of status, admitting error seems to invite a loss of prestige. High-fliers of this stripe are gambling with their reputations, as few things are more erosive to status than being caught trying to cover up a mistake.

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Families described as having “high expectations” of their children may actually have low tolerance for error, which is not at all the same thing. I have argued in the past (see: “Are You Making Enough Mistakes?”) that making more mistakes, not fewer, is the path to higher performance. Growing up in such a family, though, a person learns to value correctness, or at least perceived correctness, at the expense of trying more difficult work or looking for new ways to solve problems.

Towards Grace Under Error

Being a good sport about being wrong is a virtue that has existed for a long time. The scientific method is essentially a way of observing, dealing with, and overcoming error. The scientific mindset has its uses far outside the lab. At its core, the scientific attitude assumes that whatever conclusions have been drawn can be reexamined and revised based on new information. How much less stressful life could be if we came at it from the stance of “I think this is so, but I might be wrong.”

Notice that the scientific attitude doesn’t personalize error. If a theory turns out to be wrong, it is frequently wrong because the data available at the time pointed to the wrong conclusion. New data admits new and better theories. Maya Angelou said it poetically: “When you know better, you do better.”

Mistakes come from lots of sources, only some of them personal. Recognizing the true sources of error not only helps you solve the problem, but often takes the sting out of the mistake. Even when working with clients in the criminal justice system, the vast majority of these clients don’t wake up in the morning thinking “Today is a great day to violate someone’s rights and make them miserable!” That’s not to say that these clients aren’t responsible and accountable for their offences, but rather to point out that the bulk of actions we call “crimes” are not attributable to fundamental, intractable flaws that define the character of a convict.

Outside the criminal justice system, most errors that we might fret over are, given some time and perspective, not that important. Often people obsess on how others see some social gaffe long after everyone else has forgotten about it — if they even noticed it in the first place! Most of the time, mistakes are neither very expensive, nor very harmful, nor difficult to avoid in the future.

If we can observe our own attitudes that drive us to avoid, deny, and ignore mistakes; if we can develop the attitude that mistakes are usually small, harmless, and fixable; and if we reject the idea that our errors define us and make us less than we are, then we are well on the way to becoming “gracefully wrong.”

All clinical material on this site is peer reviewed by one or more clinical psychologists or other qualified mental health professionals. This specific article was originally published by on and was last reviewed or updated by Pat Orner Oliver on .

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