How can he remember well his ignorance -- which his growth requires -- who has so often to use his knowledge? -Henry David Thoreau, in Walden
Few things are tougher than admitting that you are wrong. Fewer still are more important, perhaps even necessary, than being wrong. I’m no longer young enough to know everything but I sure started out that way; and while I may occasionally regret the diminishing of that aggressive confidence, I am happy for the gain in the quieter version that lets me accept that I can, and have, failed.
The denial of failure is an indication of fear
What is your first reaction when someone points out a mistake in your code, a shortcoming in your design or questions your premise for a solution? Does your pulse quicken? Is a retort ready to be hurled? Does your voice rise? Do you feel besieged? Are you convinced you are being treated unfairly? These are all signs that you are suppressing fear and denying the possibility that you may be wrong. You may win the battle by browbeating your opponents at the table, but you’ve lost the war of gaining their respect. Your colleagues will think twice before they come to you for an opinion or invite you to a brainstorming session. Anger and defensiveness are masks for insecurity, so watch out for them and focus on understanding the causes of your reaction than on the motives of your (perceived) opponents. Being wrong is inevitable; your colleagues are doing their jobs by questioning, probing and analyzing the design; are you doing yours by being open, receptive and flexible?
Why be wrong?
Because it lets you do things. No matter how careful your thought process, how exhaustive your research and how nuanced your calculations, you will be wrong. If not now, tomorrow, the next month, or the next year. The longer you postpone your failure, the more spectacular it’s going to be. While you push decisions further and further ahead, you are losing out on smaller, valuable failures that could instruct and bolster your inner self.
Conservative, careful decisions result in timid outcomes that slowly eat away at your confidence at making the big decision. Use your early years to accumulate experience in making decisions; put in the work to acquire the knowledge required for your work and make decisions based on that knowledge without worrying about being wrong. If your boss thinks your decision is wrong, he’ll correct it (that’s his job!) and you’ll learn from it. If not, you have learned how to make good decisions based on knowledge. Either way, you are one step ahead in mastering decision making.
Making decisions is not something that’s acquired through thought or some vague, magical quality like “guts”; it is a skill that is born out of knowledge and practice. Making a big decision, if you’ve done the right things in your career, is not so much a leap of faith as a calculated path chosen by drawing on your experience.
Take a side; make a stand; build a case for something. Listen; accept feedback; learn; move on.
Being wrong the right way
Is there a right way to be wrong? I think so. While it is common to see participants who argue every position without committing to any side as long as there is some resistance in the air, the starved ranks of the bold are further cleaved into those saying "Yes, we can" and those saying, "No, we cannot;" and usually, it’s the naysaying crowd that forms the majority in this division.
It has puzzled me no end throughout my career when I run into these otherwise smart, motivated engineers who bring up one reason after another on why not to do something. It isn’t even that what exists is good or that they have a better proposal; they just seem to like to say no. True, they are taking a side, making a stand, building a case; so far, so good. But where they frequently fail is in the listening, accepting feedback and moving on parts.
There will always be reasons for not doing something (“we’ll disrupt our current customers”; “our priorities will have to be reshuffled”; “what if our assumptions are wrong”; see my top 10 here); but if it’s an even choice between doing and not doing something; or between a bold, slightly risky one versus a safe, unrewarding one, always bet on doing the bold, risky thing versus sitting on your hands. That is the right way of being wrong: a path that lets you (and your organization) create something, learn from it and move ahead versus just waiting for the market to write your epitaph. Remember: making a big decision is not a leap of faith, it’s a calculated path; and the calculation will make sense to you only if you have done some math in your career.
The indecisive manager
As an individual contributor, there is nothing more frustrating than working for a boss who cannot make decisions. Engineers, for all their seemingly intractable opinions at design reviews, want to get down to work and build things once their need to express themselves is spent; woe to the team lead or manager who doesn’t have the knowledge or the intestinal fortitude to make a call and get them to do it. Engineers smell fear and ineptitude a mile away and the indecisive boss might as well pack his bags and leave. The engineer’s need to respect his/her boss aside, an indecisive boss will leave projects hanging, responsibilities unclear and an air of vagueness that leads to a directionless team. The point here is this: the team will respect more a manager who makes a decision, even if it turns out wrong, than the one who ducks making one.
As a kid, I always wondered why an entire army dropped its weapons and ran when its leader fell. As part of a team in the corporate world, I now know why: I may be the best engineer in the land with a team of aggressive code warriors, but unless I am led by a boss who can convey what to build, why, and for whom, I will either form my own army or look for another leader; I am not standing in the field waiting to be slaughtered.
Making it OK to be wrong
Finally, as you get comfortable with being wrong and using them as incidents that instruct, make sure that you extend that freedom to those around you. As you start out in your career, it’s natural to focus on your work, your improvement, and your successes; but as you assume more responsibilities and widen your influence, remember to make those around you successful, too. As in life, so at work: you cannot succeed while others fail around you. The bigger your successes, the more you are dependent on those around you to make it happen. Remember how you failed and learned, and make it OK for others to follow the same path. The incentive is simple: when being wrong is OK, things get done. A team that’s wary of making mistakes will never venture anything and nothing will ever be gained.
I cannot end this post without mentioning that there might be, in some cases, painful consequences to being wrong. You may be demoted, or stripped of responsibilities or even fired. While I cannot say for sure that it’ll turn out to be the best thing that happens in your career, it will still be instructive on many levels. You have to decide at some point if you want to work at a place where you are not allowed to be wrong: nosce te ipsum! Will you be able to function at a place where you are not allowed to take a risk? Where your ideas and initiative are not valued? Where seniority or contacts count more than the substance of the ideas? Seizing opportunities and doing things from the beginning will have armed you with the knowledge of who you are, what you are capable of and where you will be happy; and that will help you make that decision. You will never have a perfect answer but when in doubt choose the unknown, bold road; what’s the worst that can happen?
Fittingly, I’m willing to admit that this whole thesis may be wrong but I’d like to know why, so if you disagree, let me know, either by commenting below or via twitter @nmandavilli.