The Freedom to Be Wrong


Do you agree with that quote by Peter McIntyre? I partially do. I love having the freedom to be wrong and tend to avoid conversations with people who always insist that their view is the only one. I knew a fellow once who believed he was always right. Once he made up his mind he refused to look at any more data. The one day he suddenly looked shocked. “I was wrong!” He said. “I was actually wrong!” Then he relaxed and smiled. “Oh well,” he said. “I guess once in 50 years isn’t too bad.”

On the other hand I had a boss once who liked to be right, but he wanted to be sure it was really true. I was cheeky enough to argue physics with him even though I only had a bachelor’s degree and he was internationally known in his field. I was usually wrong but he was a great teacher and would work through the problem on the white board and I would learn a lot. He always took my questions seriously because once in a while I was right.

One of my favorite times was after he blew up at me for a problem I has run on the supercomputer. Another group leader came in with a question and no money to pay for computing. Dave (not his real name) confidently told him the answer was in a computation I had already done. When I told him I hadn’t run that many modes (don’t worry about the details) Dave lost it and yelled at me for not having done it. I was upset at being yelled at but remembered there was a good reason I had only run three modes. Even that many was pushing the limits of the machine, and computer time was scarce. I had worked nights and weekends to get the truncated problem done.

So I didn’t say anything when Dave yelled. That wasn’t like him at all, so I figured I would wait until he had calmed down and was ready to listen. Then it dawned on me that because of the parameters I had used (called boundary conditions) it wouldn’t have mattered how many modes I had run. The information he wanted just wouldn’t have been there.

So I waited until he was coming down the hall in a good mood and said, “Hey, Dave, remember that problem we were talking about? It wouldn’t have mattered how many modes we ran. The boundary conditions were wrong.”

He instinctively denied it. “Oh, Jean, the boundary conditions weren’t wrong.”

I smiled and countered with, “How would you like to bet a beer on that?”

He looked at me trying to guess if I was right or just bluffing. He decided to gamble. “No, Jean, the boundary conditions weren’t wrong.”

So we went into my office, I sat down and he went to the white board. Yes, the conditions were fine in the x and y directions, but when he got to the z direction he put down the marker and said, “Oh, Jean, have it your own way. I don’t have time to argue with you!” Then he marched out to work on something far more important than my little problem.

Needless to say, I did not remind him he owed me a beer.

Yes, it is fun to be right. But it’s even more fun to have the freedom to be wrong. What do you think?

Thanks to Mike, Evan, Rummuser, Cathy, tammy and bikehikebabe for commenting on last week’s post.
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16 Responses to The Freedom to Be Wrong

  1. bikehikebabe says:

    Yes, Dave didn’t give himself the freedom to be wrong; not good for health. You were tactful waiting ’til he was in a good mood & didn’t rub it in about the beer. (You don’t drink beer anyway, do you?)

  2. bikehikebabe says:

    “Do you agree with that quote by Peter McIntyre? I partially do.” What don’t you like about that quote?

  3. Mike says:

    Being right is good. Being able to admit you’re wrong is important.
    Mike´s last blog post ..Climate Hysteria.

  4. Evan says:

    I’m a bit of a skeptic about confidence.
    Evan´s last blog post ..For a More Satisfying Life Pay Attention to Pleasant Surprises

  5. Jean says:

    If the quote is implying only people who don’t worry about being wrong are confident, then I disagree with that part. Most of the people I know who insist they’re always right are usually very confident in their opinions. They’re not going to waste time listening to anyone else.

    I thought Dave’s answer was brilliant. It happened over 25 years ago and the incident is still fresh in my mind and makes me laugh.

    Being more interested in learning than in appearing to be right means we increase our chances of being right the next time.

  6. Jean says:

    So am I! The more sure people seem the more I’m apt to check what they’re saying.

  7. Max Coutinho says:

    Hi Jean,

    I wouldn’t say that confidence comes from either being always right. Confidence is something related to love, respect, acceptance. If you love, respect and accept yourself (which includes the acceptance of the fact that you will be wrong a lot of times and that it is all part of the growth process) then you will be a confident individual.

    Have a great week, Jean.

    Max Coutinho´s last blog post ..Do You Vote? Then Learn the Game of Favours

  8. Nick says:

    I totally agree with the quote. If you’re afraid to be wrong, how can you ever learn anything? People who insist they’re always right (like my late father) drive me nuts. So many opinions are based on partial and inaccurate information, how can we possibly always be right? We have to be ready to reconsider if we come across new information.
    Nick´s last blog post ..Britishness

  9. Jean says:

    Yes and no. I do think if you love and respect yourself you won’t worry about making mistakes so you’re free to learn new things. But I also think confidence also comes from one’s abilities. I’m fairly confident about my ability to solve problems, especially on the computer, because I’m willing to spend the hours it takes to develop my skills. On the other hand, no matter how much I love and respect myself I will never have confidence in my driving abilities because my eyes don’t work right. I drive around town and do the world a favor by not driving in heavy traffic.

    I agree that focusing on learning, rather than feeding our egos by insisting we already know everything, is the way to go. I don’t like being cut off from the complexity of reality, especially by my own ego!

  10. Max Coutinho says:


    You make a good point; and I would agree with you entirely if I hadn’t met people who have fabulous abilities (that not many have) and yet have neither the self-confidence nor the confidence to make and see the potential of making mistakes (non-systematic ones) – the people I speak of reveal self-esteem and self-respect issues.
    But perhaps it works differently for a different set of people?
    LOL loved your “driving skills” example…however I am not sure a physical constraint should influence one’s confidence, specially when one has identified the hurdle for a specific skill to develop (again, we speak of acceptance).
    Max Coutinho´s last blog post ..The European Union Intensifies the Effects of Unemployment

  11. Jean says:

    You’re right about people who have great ability but still don’t feel confident. I’m thinking in particular about how many successful people think of themselves as frauds–that sooner or later people will figure out how little they actually know. I learned that lesson on a business trip to CERN with my group leader and another female staff member years ago. We were given a great tour but at the end of the day I was feeling overwhelmed by how little I knew. I told “Dave” that one thing was sure, when I got back home I was going to learn a lot more physics. He said it wouldn’t do any good. There will always be a lot more that you don’t know than what you do. He said Susan (the other gal) and I had it easy. All we had to do was listen–the people explaining were happy to talk about their work and didn’t expect anything from us. He, on the other hand, had a reputation to maintain and had to sound knowledgeable. Bless him for that. I decided I needed to work on my attitude and not worry about how little I knew. So when we got back home I figured out how to best use my strengths. We were developing simulation programs and they needed to be tested. So I ended up going around the division finding where our codes could help the Ph.Ds working on real problems. They didn’t have money to do the computing so I ended up writing the grant proposals for our funding, using our the programs to solve the problems and writing the papers. It was a win-win situation for us all.

  12. bikehikebabe says:

    I’m impressed by your win-win solution. My lesson here is to realize my strengths & use them.

  13. Max Coutinho says:


    Indeed, many people seem to think of themselves as frauds (when they shouldn’t). The fear of having others realising how little we may know, is related to our ego (another foe of confidence, now that you made me think of it).
    Dave was right: no matter how much we know, there will always be something else that we don’t – we can’t know everything; and it is better to accept it lest we lose our minds pursuing the illusion that we can.
    Exactly: you focused on your strengths (you were a piece of the puzzle, without you it wouldn’t be complete, cause the PhDs need your help as well). You are a fine example that once we focus on our strengths there is no more space for fears or insecurities.

    Thank you for this delightful conversation :D.
    Max Coutinho´s last blog post ..The European Union Intensifies the Effects of Unemployment

  14. Cathy in NZ says:

    behind with my inbox…but I’m not always confident at all on either old matters or new ones. But I’m fairly confident I will get by on a daily basis in most arenas if I can remember to back up when things aren’t great and give out stuff when the timing is right…
    Cathy in NZ´s last blog post ..Weet-bix

  15. Jean says:

    Thank you!

    I think the main confidence we need is that we will be able to get by on a daily basis. So what if some of our projects don’t turn out the way we would like. They don’t have to. At least we’re trying new things and continually learning.

  16. Rummuser says:

    Actually, the best way to be is not to worry about being right or wrong. Just get on with what needs to be done and return to it if turns out to be wrong! That is my way.
    Rummuser´s last blog post ..Back In Action.

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