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How to be smarter: be wrong. Notes from Kathryn Schultz at the RSA

I like the idea that failure is good. Not all the time, cos we’d never get anything done. But it’s not always bad. And sometimes it’s essential. Seen it commercially celebrated at Wieden + Kennedy’s London office. Sorry to go on about them. They’re a ‘creative agency’, i.e. the guys that come up with TV ads and images and things for adverts. They’re fun places. And they embrace failure. (Not so much that stuff breaks. Presumably they can’t all be embracing failure all the time. But still.)

Kathryn Schultz has written a book on it. She spoke at the RSA about it ages ago, and I made some notes. They are as follows.

Mistakes are like cockroaches: fascinating, but nasty.

‘We think of mistakes as unwelcome, disgusting inhabitants of cognition.’

Wanted to understand the origins, and propose a different way of thinking about being wrong.

Story of a woman who’d suffered a stroke, gone blind. But didn’t know she was blind. A real condition, very rare. Some stroke victims similarly don’t know that they are paralysed.

Helps establish that there are no outer limits of being wrong. [Descartes would have agreed.]

‘There is almost no belief we can have about the world that is not under certain circumstances, a fallacy.’

 (This is not Descartes.)

What does it mean to be wrong? Those strange medical conditions again: they remember the sensation of moving, and they think that that memory is actually happening. But they’re wrong.

Wrongness reminds us that there is a gap between our mind and the world. 

To be blind to our own blindness is a condition of all of us. Being wrong doesn’t feel like anything. Realising that you’re wrong might lead to all sorts of feelings. But just ‘being wrong’ – nothing. 

Wile E Coyote could run off a cliff for a short time and keep running; he’d only fall when he realised there was no ground below him.

On the enlightenment, there should be a shift in metaphors – we think of coming from the dark and going into the light. But championing a certain set of beliefs might not be condusive to a culture of enlightenment. Accept the darkness. Insist on space for ambiguity, error.

Original enlightment thinkers understood this.

Doubt is the way forward for enlightenment. Start asking: ‘what if i’m wrong?’ It’s exciting!

When belief systems collapse, that’s when things get interesting – you learn, reconstruct your view of the world for the better. Creative minds of every era understand the centrality of doubt. 

I love this. I think it requires a bit of discipline to remember to stop and ask the question. And it’s difficult when nobody around you is. But all the more important. 



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