In this trifling particular, then, I appear to be wiser than he, because I do not fancy I know what I do not know.
— Socrates (in Plato’s Apology, 21d)
I say to everyone among you not to think more highly of himself than he ought to think.
— St. Paul (Romans 12:3)
In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, in the expert’s mind there are few.
— Shunryu Suzuki, Zen Mind, Beginners Mind
They say (at nearly every conference or meeting), “There are no dumb questions.”
I’m waiting for the day when someone will get up in front of an audience and say, “They’re all dumb questions.”
Rhetorical questions aside, the reason you ask a question is that you don’t know the answer. If you knew the answer, if you were “smart”, there would be no point in asking.
The same is true of answers. Some answers really are wrong. And when you’re wrong, you expose your ignorance. Then, for a moment, you might feel dumb. Or embarrassed. Or even ashamed. I do.
Too bad that so often when we’ve been wrong, we’ve been made to feel that not knowing or being incorrect is a moral deficiency. Being wrong is not the same as being bad. It makes it that much harder to ask or volunteer and answer the next time.
But I say, do it anyway. Because while being wrong isn’t the same as being bad, staying wrong is. And the only way not to stay wrong is to ask the dumb question and to offer the wrong answer.
Being wrong is the beginning of the path that leads to being right.
Exposing not-knowing is the beginning of the path to knowing.
On Tuesday I learned something new. I submitted a code challenge answer to a developer’s group I’m a part of — and my answer was wrong. Horrors!
But the experience of being wrong came with an opportunity to understand something I didn’t know before. I was “dumb.” Then I was enlightened. And the feeling of exhilaration that came with the enlightenment more than made up for the momentary embarrassment of having been wrong.
Have the courage to be wrong. Not for the sake of being wrong, of course. But for the opportunity to become right.