Ever thought about the fact that 4-year-olds know the past tense of 10,000 verbs having heard only 100 or so? You notice this gift when you hear them make a mistake like “goed” or “eated.” Equally impressive is how quickly they learn that they are wrong. In no time they are saying “went” and “ate.” They handle being wrong better than we adults do.
As Kathryn Shultz so eloquently and entertainingly portrays in Being Wrong (HarperCollins, 2010), the human brain has a design flaw: we are brilliant at knowing, equally prone to being wrong and even better at denial.
There are two kinds of learning. “Single loop learning” is adding information to our existing mindsets. “Double loop learning” is changing those mindsets based on new information. This second kind of learning grows out of living in the tension of irreconcilable mindsets to come up with something new. Increasingly, the success of a person, group or organization depends on our facility with “double loop learning.”
Children are better at this than adults, because we adults are under pressure for our mindsets to be accurate and our theories to be true. We think our survival, success and popularity depend on being right. Less and less we like to change our theories, so more and more we’re prone to arrogance—often with devastating results.
So what do we have to do to stop stepping off into wrongness?
- ask questions
- talk to a friend
- sleep on it
- increase awareness
- let go of expectations
- lollygag, meditate, wonder, go for long walks
- pay attention to crazy ideas
- publically own your thoughts and feelings
- experiment with new behaviors
- invite disconfirmation
- ask the person who didn’t say anything at the meeting what she thinks before you vote.
- don’t trust “metrics.” Everyone knows there are three kinds of data: “Lies, Damn lies, and Statistics.
These disciplines and many others tend toward inviting our genius to the table. This inner voice of the soul is aware of all the data including what we have been avoiding, ignoring or denying.
Culture is powerful. The culture we are in can either drive us toward needing to be right or open our eyes to wrongness and new possibilities. In most schools, for instance, these 13 behaviors are too risky, odd, or not allowed. Being wrong is embarrassing because being right is the only value. Asking stupid questions or changing your mind might get you laughed at. Talking to a friend or lollygagging might get you yelled at.
On the other hand, we can actually create culture by defining ourselves to the situation moment by moment. We can look for opportunities to speak the truth in ways that get smiles instead of snarls. We can be the child who says, “The emperor has no clothes.” We might have to risk being weird, but then we might contribute to learning, and more importantly we’ll have surfaced more truth for a more creative climate. This is leadership.
Leaders can create a culture where one gets as many brownie points for making mistakes as for being right. Parents can change the culture in the home by acknowledging their mistakes instead of hiding them. Removing the recrimination layer from conflict can have a powerful effect on turning conflicts into successful collaborations. Giving children opportunities to take responsibility for others completely obviates the need to lecture them on “being responsible,” or to “teach them empathy.”
Please do try this at home, or even in public places, but don’t try it without engaging genius; for genius is expert in harmonizing inconsistent opposites, resolving dilemmas, and integrating of two impossibilities. Reality and our trusted beliefs never quite match up. Our soul holds the key to living with the confusion long enough for us to create something of value.
The culture around us is changing. To create, collaborate, communicate, and contribute are increasingly obvious as required skillsets for human success. The need to create is undermining the pressure to be right. The requirement to collaborate is undercutting solo virtuosity. The way to communicate is obviously a two-way street. The imperative to contribute is preempting “looking out for yourself.” Self-made, arrogant men are less popular. (The apparent popularity of Donald Drumpf is the rear-guard phenomenon of an obsolete culture.)
Living with our paradoxes leads us down into our soul and back out toward creativity.