Why Are We So Scared Of Being Wrong?

My elementary school had an absurd grading scale. The B+ grade started at 92%, a C would be written on your test if you’d scored an 85%, and you were failing a class a full ten points higher than most systems allowed, at 69% instead of 59%. This, of course, was nothing short of absurd. A C, after all, signals for most that there is some real reason to worry, which no one who’s understanding above 80% of a course’s material should feel. Let’s not forget that this was an elementary school system, and I have no doubt that it’s usage prompted high levels of stress about school far earlier than children should be facing

However, even declaring someone a failure at 59% correct seems a little bit ridiculous. On the one hand, it’s reasonable to argue that to show true true mastery of the material in a class requires an incredibly high percentage of correct responses. On the other, however, it’s hardly fair to say that someone who is right more than half the time, who knows more than half of all the material there is to know, is a failure. Success can come to those who make a correct decision even half of the time. There’s a problem here with our very conception of success, with the very idea that it means not being wrong.

This understanding is completely reasonable. Being wrong, after all, is a harrowing experience because of what psychologists call fundamental misattribution error. This is the process in which we attribute moment in both others and ourselves. When we get something wrong, for example, we don’t think that we messed up but more likely that we’re stupid or incapable or a failure. We confuse momentary mistake with fundamental fault. Even the word is problematic, making us believe that those who perform a certain level are simply failing, that something is wrong with them.

For our own sakes though, we need to unlearn this conception of success and failure. Success doesn’t mean avoiding failure, and indeed the path to success in any endeavor leads directly through a series of failures. Indeed, it is likely because of these failures, and our learning from them, that success is ever even possible. Thomas Edison is famous, among many other things, for once having said “I haven’t failed, I’ve just found 10,000 ways that don’t work.” We need to realize, and teach children, that it’s becasue of those 10,000 that he finally succeeded.