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Mark Goulston M.D., F.A.P.A.
Mark Goulston M.D., F.A.P.A.

Being Wrong — Why People Can't Stand It

And why being wrong offers you the best chance to succeed.

On Sunday, May 27, Drew Gilpin Faust, President of Harvard was interviewed in the NY Times Sunday Book Review. What caught my attention was her answer to this question:

Is there any book you wish all incoming freshmen at Harvard would read?

Kathryn Schulz’s Being Wrong advocates doubt as a skill and praises error as the foundation of wisdom. Her book would reinforce my encouragement of Harvard’s accomplished and successful freshmen to embrace risk and even failure.

I then checked out Schulz’s book and read it. I’d suggest you read it as well.

The book caused me to think about why being wrong is so difficult for so many people. In addition to Schulz’s notions, it occurred to me that there was a direct correlation between difficulty in being wrong and the rigidity of your personality, i.e. the more rigid (and less adaptive) your personality, the more difficulty in being wrong.

Why is that?

Because if you think of the foundation of your personality as being the way your thinking (i.e. human, 200,000-year-old) brain, emotional (i.e. mammalian, 65 million-year-old) brain, and actional/”fight or flight” (i.e. reptilian, 245 million-year-old) brain are configured with each other, the more rigid the configuration aimed at a specific end, the more difficult it will be to “reconfigure” towards a different end.

Think of your three brains — human/thinking, mammalian/emotional, reptilian/actional as stacked on top of each other (human on top of mammalian, mammalian on top of reptilian). When they are stacked seamlessly and aimed at a specific goal, on a specific mission and everything is lined up that way, you feel greatly empowered, dare I say in some cases, “bulletproof.”

However, when the goal/reality shifts and the way the three brains are lined up is counterproductive or even destructive, and the new reality is not going to change (remember the saying, “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results”), your three brains cannot literally stand long without the reality finally sinking in that you are out of whack.

So the reason people can’t stand being wrong is that their three brains cannot stand being misaligned with their current reality for long. The feeling that their three brains are becoming “unglued” is intolerable.

For instance, consider young men and women who enter the military. They enter basic training with their thinking, emotional, and action brains loosely configured but filled with “piss and vinegar” to fight an enemy. During basic training, they are broken down and rebuilt into a warrior and in some cases a “killing machine” that is finely tuned to facing and triumphing over an enemy.

As long as they have a war and enemy to fight, that new configuration works and the alignment in their brain is not just a major part of their personality; it forms a major part of their identity. This may explain why so many soldiers, upon coming home where their brains are out of alignment with the civilian world, feel “disconnected,” lost, and don’t know who they are — it and may explain why they will then sign on to do another tour where how their brain/mind is configured is aligned with their goal of being a warrior in a war.

There is a commonly held notion that the key to success in the world is to fail big, early, and quick in your life. I think the reason is when that happens, the pre-failure configuration of your brain/mind/personality/identity is broken.

For some, that break will sadly lead to their breaking down, breaking apart, and never making it back to life. However, for those who will go on to great success, that breaking down of their brain/mind/personality/identity is the best opportunity for them to adapt successfully to the new reality that triggered the breakdown and not just to adapt, but to think outside the box (since their box has disappeared) and be innovative. It is also the best opportunity to discover within themselves that most wonderful trait of resilience that will serve them the rest of their lives.

In fact, the longer someone goes in life without ever having a breakdown (or is prevented from having it by helicopter parents who bail them out of everything), the more rigid their personality will become, the more difficult it will become to deal with mistakes, be wrong or fail later in life, and the less successful they will become.

About the Author
Mark Goulston M.D., F.A.P.A.

Mark Goulston, M.D., the author of the book Just Listen, is a Clinical Assistant Professor of Medicine at UCLA's Neuropsychiatric Institute.