Recognizing that error is an inevitable part of our lives frees us from despising ourselves – and forbids us from looking down on others – for getting things wrong. Once we recognize that we do not err out of laziness, stupidity, or evil intent, we can liberate ourselves from the impossible burden of trying to be permanently right. We can take seriously the proposition that we could be in error, without deeming ourselves idiotic or unworthy. We can respond to the mistakes (or putative mistakes) of those around us with empathy and generosity. We can demand that our business and political leaders acknowledge and redress their errors rather than ignoring or denying them. In short, a better relationship with wrongness can lead to better relationships in general – whether between family members, colleagues, neighbors, or nations.
Embracing fallibility to prevent catastrophic error, embracing fallibility to prevent conflict: These are two hugely worthy goals. But learning to do either one consistently is close to impossible as long as we insist that mistakes are made only by morons, and that an intelligent, principled, hard-working mind is the only backup we need. This is the deep meaning behind the pat cliché “to err is human.” Take away the ability of an intelligent, principled, hard-working mind to get it wrong, and you take away the whole thing.
By Kathryn Schulz, author of Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error (Ecco, 2010); read the full article in the Boston Globe (13 Jun 10).