The fear of making mistakes stifles many people's creativity and innovation. We are often so worried about what will happen if we make a mistake or if something goes wrong that we do nothing.
Richard Dawkins tells the story of a professor of his in school who researched and wrote for years on a particular biological phenomenon and one day a younger scientist lectured to the class and definitely proved the old man wrong. He shook his hand and thanked him. Dawkins correctly points out that this is the essence of a good scientist.
The philosopher of science Karl Popper discussed what a good theory consisted of and concluded that it must be falsifiable. That is, you must be able to describe the evidence that could, in principle, show that the theory was false. Every scientist must be prepared to have their theory disconfirmed by the facts. It's not easy but it is part of the search for the truth. I can't say that it would be easy to accept but it would be the mark of a great researcher, not to mention an intellectually honest one, to accept such a fate if presented with the evidence that falsifies their theory.
Another good example of this noble mindset comes from the Dalai Lama who famously says "if there's good, strong evidence from science that such and such is the case and this is contrary to Buddhism, then we will change." Indeed, perhaps less willingly the Catholic Church has changed its views on Copernicus, Galileo, and evolution over the years.
Being wrong can also be a path to progress however unintended. As historian James Burke points out, Gutenberg got the date of a religious festival wrong and was inspired to go ahead with plans to develop the printing press. For years scientists were wrong about the existence of aether leading Einstein to reformulate the laws of the universe.
So, if you're worried about being wrong, here's a handy guide to taking action when you fear you might make a mistake.
1. If the cost of failure is zero, take action. Many times the decision you have to make entails no costs even if you're wrong. In such cases, it is only the fear of being wrong that is stopping you from proceeding and innovating. As Joseph Chilton Pearce once said: "To live a creative life, we must lose our fear of being wrong."
2. If your decision is reversible, take action. In other cases, the decision you have to make is one you can reverse without much cost except having tried something new. In such cases, it makes sense to try innovation.
3. If there is a very good chance for positive results, take action. Lastly, of course, if your decision involves a very good chance of benefit, especially when combined with the low costs of being wrong then it makes sense to take action.
In each of these cases, you should take action primarily because being wrong is not very likely or has low costs. But, we mustn't forget that error can lead to innovation itself. As my examples above illustrate sometimes error is the fortunate outcome of decisions. So if the potential for being wrong doesn't entail harm to yourself or others it might make sense to take action even with a good chance of being wrong.
How many advancements have been missed due to the fear of being wrong? How many books were never written for the same fear? How many opportunities have been missed due to the fear of making a mistake by taking action? We may never know. The nature of seeking knowledge itself is to sometimes be wrong as William James points out so aptly: "We have to live today by what truth we can get today, and be ready tomorrow to call it falsehood."
KEVIN J. BROWNE
Philosopher / Educator
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