It's All Right To Be All Wrong

by Joshua Routh

Workplace Renaissance
Over 20 years ago, I was inspired by something that happened so quickly, it seems impossible that I still think about it so frequently.

It was summer in San Francisco, 2002 and I was driving away from Golden Gate Park towards the Presidio. At the corner of Park Presidio Blvd and Lake St, there was a man, sitting on a bench, with a long beard, even longer hair, scruffy clothes, holding above his head a large sign that had no words, only a question mark. He was unmoving, his figure still, like he was cut in marble, as if he had always been there. The penultimate image of the street philosopher.

In all the years since, and in my many daydreams, I am sure the things I have ascribed to this park side prophet likely have little to do with why he was there. Or maybe not.

I gave him a name, Marcus Quaest (Latin joke). At times I have imagined him as the leader of a whole school of street philosophers in the tradition of Socrates questioning everything. Standing up and challenging the times, humanity, mores, society and indeed even questioning if it is possible to truly have belief in anything.

As time goes by I make odds and ends notes about it. The ideas could fill a book, a small book, ok a pamphlet. Double-sided.

The idea I kept coming back to was that his teachings would be less about being right and more on the value of being wrong. That place of being wrong it would seem, is where we grow and learn the most.

I have spent countless hours thinking up possible teachings, created a pantheon of great thinkers in the tradition, I dove down the rabbit hole of studying who invented the question mark (Alcuin), created bumper stickers (“Caution beliefs may change any time”), and imagined dialogues in the style of Plato about what the followers believed or didn’t believe.

One of my favorite ‘beliefs’ is that as we are questioning, growing, learning and failing; instead of being frustrated, angry or defensive, what if instead we treated it as a welcome surprise. It is an attitude shift in which we welcome missteps as a surprising discovery on a journey. Proof that we are indeed on the path going somewhere and not in a hut watching the adventurers pass us by. The root word of question is quest is it not?

For most of us, the idea that we celebrate mistakes is a leap. I get it. The point is that we begin to find comfort in the idea that if we take risks, we will fail and it is OK. Not just OK, it is necessary.

Scientists have discovered that perfectionists, terrified of making mistakes, actually are worse at completing tasks well than those who are comfortable with imperfection. The theory is that perfectionists have a harder time receiving feedback so they rarely improve.

Research goes on to tell us that if we become hyper focused on getting the right answer, we often ignore the concepts that lie beneath the surface if we just open ourselves up to asking questions and being wrong. People who succeed view mistakes not as a learning failure, but as guideposts for the as yet unknown.

When we question societal norms, we often learn that the way we have been doing things may be misguided. We never know we have long ago taken a detour unless we ask. We have a hard time distinguishing between what is true and what is just something we have always done.

Here is one of my favorite stories that illustrates the point:

One afternoon, a curious young boy was learning to tie his shoes, his father laced the shoes and tied a small knot in the end of each lace. He had noticed that his older siblings had the same knot at the end of their laces. This had always intrigued him, yet he had never thought to question its purpose. He asked his father, “Dad, why do you always tie knots at the end of the laces?”

His father, pausing for a moment, admitted, “You know, I’m not entirely sure. It’s just something my dad always did. Maybe you should ask your Grandpa.”

Intrigued, the boy sought out his grandfather. Upon hearing the question, his grandfather scratched his head, echoing his son’s uncertainty. “Well, I, I don’t rightly know. My father always did it. Perhaps you should ask your great-grandpa.”

With curiosity driving him, he called his great grandfather and he posed the question about tying knots at the end of the shoelaces.

His great-grandfather smiled warmly, reminiscing, “Back when I was a boy, we used to tie knots at the end of our shoe laces to mark which ones were ours. I was first born, so one knot. My little brother with the big feet, feet as big as mine, was second born, so he had two knots in his laces.”

Humility becomes a challenge when we stop making mistakes. Our egos become our biggest liability. That is not to say confidence in one’s ability is a bad thing. I prefer to think of humility as, ‘Understanding who we are with a sincere desire to become who we could be’. We never want to be above making mistakes, or to put others on such pedestals that they cannot fail as well. Those lines of thinking lead to serious problems and overall complacency. We begin to misjudge the limits of our own expertise.

Making mistakes creates opportunities to grow in empathy. When we see that others are struggling instead of dealing harshly with them and pummeling them with our high expectations, we instead can see it as an opportunity to share our insight. Everyone loves to share what they have been through, learned, seen and done. For proof, just ask anyone about their recent vacation. I guarantee they will bring out their phone and start showing you pictures. If a person never leaves the house, and never puts themselves out there for the journey, all they have is the idea of struggle, and a whole lot of pictures of their coffee table. Henry Rollins calls this, “Knowledge without mileage”.

Recognizing resilience as one of the most valuable outcomes of mistakes cannot be overstated. Understanding how to navigate failure, learn from it, persevere, exert greater effort, stumble, and rise again is incredibly vital to achieving success. It is perhaps the most significant factor distinguishing those who achieve their objectives from those who do not.

Mistakes are inevitable. What matters most is our response to them. Will we hide our heads? Take ownership? Blame others? Embrace them as surprises? Let them become our greatest teachers? Extend forgiveness to ourselves and others?

The power to choose lies within us. The only answer is to embrace our imperfection and keep asking questions.

Until next time, keep living to the hilt.

Joshua Routh

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