I may be wrong; I am often wrong
“I may be wrong; I am often wrong” is something of a mantra for me. I say it out loud almost every day, in conversation with co-workers and friends. And I say it privately to myself even more often.
It’s a caution to others. In my work, I speak in a lead role, I speak from deep experience, and I speak with confidence — plus the privilege that comes with being male, white, and American. This gives my words an authority far out of proportion to their value. But frankly, much of my work involves making predictions and value judgments, often with incomplete or incorrect information. That means that, despite my efforts, I am often wrong. Saying it out loud, as a preface to my responses, helps keep others from taking my word as gospel all the time, or letting privilege and authority outweigh facts and good judgment.
It’s a caution to myself, too. As a friend once said to me, “Courage of your convictions has never been your problem”. Some people lack confidence; some people are overconfident. I tend toward overconfidence. I know I’m smart, I like to think I’m openminded, and this leads me to overvalue my own opinions. Reminding myself that I may be wrong is even more important to me than reminding others.
It’s a matter of intellectual and moral integrity. Being right is right. Being “right” is wrong. Facts and reasoning should always trump whatever is in my head at the moment. If there’s a mismatch between what’s in my head, and any new facts or logic being presented, then defending my opinions in contradiction of those facts is both an intellectual and moral failure on my part. Being proven wrong in public can be embarrassing or humiliating, yes, but continuing to be wrong rather than facing the facts makes me not only wrong, but also a fool and an asshole.
It works. I strongly believe that my willingness to accept that I’m wrong and correct myself makes me more likely to be right overall. It stands to reason. It’s also supported some by the fact that numerous people have commented on it positively over the years, after witnessing me publicly change my position on something in the face of new evidence. I assume this means even more people have noted it without commenting. (Of course, I may be wrong; I am often wrong.)
But it only works if you mean it. It’s not just enough to say the words. One must act on the words. When you see you’re wrong, own it, without flinching. Fighting it is wrong. Feeling embarrassed or ashamed is unhelpful. Trying to shift to the new position while not acknowledging the old one can be a sort of dishonesty. (Oceania had always been at war with Eastasia, as Orwell said.) Make a habit of it. Don’t worry, you’re wrong often enough that you can get plenty of practice.
Between all these factors, I firmly believe that this habit helps both honor and reputation. It makes me a better person, and it helps others think of me as a better person.