I was a typical teenager. I thought I knew everything. Luckily I was often more wrong than I was right and so it became apparent much sooner that I could be wrong. I imagine if I was a super high achiever with a strong affirming feedback loop that it probably would have been much later in life until I realized that I was so fallible.
You see when you are convinced you are correct, you only see evidence of your own correctness, extreme confirmation bias. When you are proven wrong enough times, there’s some point when your confidence is finally shaken. Our perspective broadens when we allow for the possibility that we are wrong. Why is it so hard to see some times! And perspectives broaden even further when we accept that we could be wrong and then try to prove ourselves wrong (yes, try to prove yourself wrong!).
“What would I eliminate if I had a magic wand? Overconfidence”
— Daniel Kahneman
Two formative and humbling experiences from my teen age life come to mind. The first was when I was certain that the only two computers that existed the world were a PC and a Mac. The second was when I was certain that a CDROM could not be rewritten.
When I was 14, a freshman in high school, I was over a friends house whose older brother Skip was enrolled in the Electrical Engineering program at the University of Delaware. On his coffee table was a round metal disc that had wire coiled continuously around it. I curiously asked what it was and he said it was something he made it during a lab project to test the effect of electromagnetism and induction. I kept prodding Skip with questions. He started to elaborate on the EE program and how he get to work on these large networked computers. I asked if they were a PC or a Mac, and he laughed and explained neither, that these computers ran Unix. I countered that it must be one or the other, and he just laughed and said “no man, you’ll see”. I thought he must be so stupid at the time. The irony of my blindness was that the first computer with a keyboard we owned at our home was my brother Ken’s Atari 800XL, which was obviously neither a PC or a Mac.
And then during my freshman year of college in 1994, enrolled in the same Electrical Engineering program at the University of Delaware (thanks for the inspiration Skip!), I learned about CD-ROMs (compact disk read-only memory). That these optical discs had pits pressed into them that created segments that reflected a laser read and a lens that interpreted these “pits” and “lands” as encoded binary data. I learned how discs were made to be more resilient to scratches through error correction and interpolation capabilities that could make up for missing data. And the one thing I learned for certain was in the name itself. CD-ROMs were of course read only!
Before Thanksgiving dinner that same year, I was talking with my newly wedded sister in-law Jess. Somehow the topic of CD-ROMs came up and Jess told me about these new discs that were being developed that could be rewritten. I learned all about CD-ROMs and thought I knew it all. I argued that it was physically impossible to rewrite a disc, given how the pits were physically pressed into each disc! There’s no way I said. And just like Skip, Jess patiently said something like “just wait, you’ll see”. It took a few more years but in 1997, the CD-RW came onto the market.
And these are a mere two examples of a consistent theme: I was brashly and naively wrong many times in my youth. I expect that most teenagers are to some extent but I believe I was particularly overconfident. Sometimes being armed with a little knowledge is more damning than not knowing anything at all! I mourn all the knowledge I shunned because I was blinded by my own self righteous.
My need to be right wasn’t leading me to the truth; it was often keeping me from it!
Then one day, while still in college, one rather low day actually, it just hit me: awareness. My need to be right wasn’t leading me to the truth; it was often keeping me from it! And just like that, It was like a curse had been lifted, oh humility have your way with me… or something like that 😂. Going forward, I would catch myself in moments of brash confidence, pause, and accept that I probably had something to learn. I would open up, listen, consider, research and learn.
Now when I find myself so sure that I’m onto something, so sure that I’m on the right path, so sure that my theory is right, I hit the brakes, play devil’s advocate and try to prove myself wrong. And sometimes I actually find that I’m less wrong than I thought or better yet, I find the next idea that is even less wrong than that!
As I’ve gotten older, I’ve come to appreciate more and more that there is very little absolute “right” or “wrong”, “true” or “lie”, “good guys” or “bad guys”. There are always multiple perspectives and counter balance; one person’s victory most times shadows another’s loss. However, what’s worse than being wrong is being wronger than wrong as so well stated by Isaac Asimov in his book :
“When people thought the earth was flat, they were wrong. When people thought the earth was spherical, they were wrong. But if you think that thinking the earth is spherical is just as wrong as thinking the earth is flat, then your view is wronger than both of them put together.”
— The Relativity of Wrong (Doubleday, 1988)
It’s in the moments of arrogant confidence that you are most vulnerable. Second guessing yourself isn’t weakness, it’s a super power. Good luck out there.