Is Being Silent Worse Than Being Wrong?

For many years, psychologists and behavioral scientists have looked into the causes of procrastination - that debilitating condition that causes all of us to put off until tomorrow, the things we could do today.

Much of the research has determined that while anxiety and self-worth are key factors for many who procrastinate, a leading cause for most of us is perfectionism.  Our desire to accomplish any and all tasks we are given perfectly.  A sort of tug of war takes place in our subconscious brain where the perfectionist in us is faced with the reality that we may not have the time, resources, or abilities to complete a task to the level of quality we think it deserves.  So we put it off, and off, and off.  Delaying is the coping mechanism that tells our brain we didn’t fail.  That there is still time for us to live up to the standard we set for ourselves.

Our fear of failure and making mistakes has an enormous impact on our behavior, well beyond procrastination, however. It doesn’t just paralyze us from taking action, it causes us to avoid risk altogether.  And that is a huge problem for both our professional and personal lives. We convince ourselves that being wrong will reflect poorly on us and cause us to lose the respect of those we are trying to impress.  But the evidence just doesn’t prove that out, and the examples are all around us.

Malcolm Gladwell is an exceptional writer and a deeply profound thinker.  His three books, The Tipping Point, Blink, and Outliers have been huge bestsellers and Time Magazine has named him as one of their 100 Most Influential People.  Malcolm Gladwell says and writes something and tens of millions of people listen.  And being wrong hasn’t hurt him one bit.  Because he relies heavily on anecdotal evidence, Gladwell’s work isn’t always factually correct.  Critics have pointed out the errors in each of his books, noting that while his stories are always compelling, they aren’t always accurate.  (As an example, in an interview with Fareed Zakaria of CNN promoting Outliers, Gladwell spoke of the importance of preparation and hard work and how hedge fund manager John Paulson was one of the few people who benefited from the recent mortgage crisis, earning $3.7 billion, because “he did his homework” and studied the trends everyone else was overlooking.  As we are now finding out, Paulson was apparently in collusion with Goldman Sachs helping to create and exploit the flaws of the mortgage industry and not the hardworking sleuth that Gladwell made him out to be.)

But being wrong doesn’t hurt Malcolm Gladwell, or his reputation.  We love his books because he crafts fascinating stories, but more importantly, because he challenges our minds and forces us to rethink things we thought we knew.  He engages us in a discussion.  Tom Peters (In Search of Excellence) and Jim Collins (Good to Great) have done the same for the business world with their theories on what makes some organizations exceptional.  Like Gladwell, some of their work has been proven to be just plain wrong.  For Peters, of 43 companies he identified as “excellent,” one-third were in financial difficulties within five years of the book being published, with some, such as Atari and Wang having long passed.  And lets not forget that Jim Collins included on his list of “Great” organizations, the now bankrupt and out of business Circuit City, and the institution most responsible for the mortgage crisis, Fannie Mae.

The point here is that being wrong isn’t nearly as bad as we think it is.  We are often afraid to speak up, offer a suggestion or idea, write a blog post, support a candidate, or join a cause because we are afraid of being wrong and the stigma we think comes with it.  But as Gladwell, Peters and Collins have shown us, people aren’t lemmings blindly following the advice, positions, and conclusions of others.  We make up our own minds and we appreciate those who engage us in thought. In the end, that is what we remember about provocateurs and risk takers.  They light a spark and make us think.

The fear of being wrong, of not being perfect, hurts us in so many ways.  It’s bad enough that it causes us to procrastinate on all the things we need and want to accomplish. But worse than that, it makes us silent and allows our fate and the fate of our organization, our chapter, our family, our country...to be determined by others who aren’t afraid to make a mistake or be wrong.