Mistakes As Markers Of Growth: From Valuing “Right Answers” To Embracing Uncertainty


As I reflected on this turbulent year, I wondered what I had learned about preparing our children to live in this increasingly complex, unstable, polarized world. I imagined a society in which all people suddenly lost confidence in their opinions. I asked myself what would change for people in a world like that. The answer that came to me was, “almost everything.”

We may have evolved to be “naive realists,” guided by a deep subconscious intuition that we perceive the world as it truly is. In practice, perhaps, our reality could be described as “augmented” with our assumptions about the world. These assumptions are acquired through our limited means of learning, distorted by cognitive and motivational biases. We shouldn’t be too harsh on our brains, though. Just imagine what it must be like for them – confined to Plato’s cave of the skull, tasked with assembling an accurate picture of the outside world from a barrage of noisy electrical signals.

We often mistakenly assume that every child’s mind is a blank slate before they start formal learning. However, current research suggests that we begin to rely on underlying assumptions about the world quickly after we are born. Infants already have basic physical expectations and are surprised when the behavior of objects contradicts them. Implicit assumptions about the world, which develop during infancy and continue into adulthood, direct our basic perceptual and motor activities. You may have experienced them when picking up a milk carton you didn’t know was empty: your hand unexpectedly flew up as your brain overestimated the amount of effort required to lift the carton. Our inability to “unsee” an optical illusion – even after observing it multiple times and clearly understanding its mechanics – also suggests the resiliency of our expectations.

If our beliefs are so unreliable, why do we place so much confidence in them? As it turns out, the feeling of certainty in our convictions is merely a physical sensation akin to hunger. This feeling may have evolved as a “circuit breaker” to help our ancient ancestors with instant life-and-death decisions. Any uncertainty could delay immediate action and spell disaster. As a result, we appear wired to experience discomfort in the face of uncertainty. Our intuition may suggest that our confidence must grow as we gain skills. Yet, in practice, the more we learn, the more we realize how much there is to know. The famous Dunning-Kruger chart illustrates how we start out overconfident in our understanding and then become more humble as our expertise increases. Since we are likely to be unaware of our hubris, we need to learn strategies to avoid overconfidence and identify our misconceptions. As always, it is best to start early.

Ray Dalio, the founder of the world’s biggest hedge fund, Bridgewater Associates, and one of TIME100’s most influential people in the world, counts the ability to embrace reality and remain radically open-minded among his key principles. The more open-minded you are, observes Dalio, the less likely you are to deceive yourself— and the more likely it is that others will give you honest feedback. Recognizing and accepting our mistakes is the only way to avoid repeating them in the future. Ignoring or covering them up only makes our problems worse. Unfortunately, since parents and schools overemphasize the value of the right answers, even the “best” students may be the worst at learning from mistakes. The act of embracing our mistakes is essential for learning. If you look back on your past self and aren’t embarrassed by how dumb you were, suggests Dalio, you haven’t learned much.

Looking back through the history of science, even the most established “facts,” shared by the best minds of the past, eventually became obsolete. At different times, people believed that the Earth was flat (or hollow inside), that our eyes emitted invisible tentacles of light to “touch” objects, and that flies spontaneously originated out of spoiled meat. The universally accepted modern notions that many diseases are caused by invisible organisms, that crocodiles are closer related to birds than to lizards, or that the mind is produced by the brain must have appeared preposterous back then. Many bold declarations about the future, made by some of the most respected thinkers, were proven wrong quickly thereafter. Reportedly, Albert Michelson, Nobel Prize laureate in physics, confidently stated in 1894 that the more important fundamental laws and facts of physical science had all been discovered; Charles H. Duell, the Commissioner of the U.S. Patent Office, believed back in 1899 that “everything that could be invented had already been invented”; and Ken Olsen, a co-founder of DEC, one of the earliest computer companies, concluded in 1977 that there was no reason for individuals to have computers in their homes. If even the best minds are prone to mistakes, how much confidence should the rest of us hold in our own “self-evident” assumptions?

Our hope that the development of scientific thinking in children will help them recognize their erroneous assumptions later in life may be well-founded. However, rather than presenting scientific findings as “facts,” it is important to teach students that all scientific theories are provisional. In addition, exposing children to the misconceptions of great thinkers will help them readily accept their own mistakes, develop a “growth mindset,” and become dispassionate observers of their minds — like true scientists. Eventually, they will come to echo St. Augustine: “I err, therefore I am.” This realization can help replace the self-conscious anxiety that so often accompanies learning with the joy of new discoveries.

Let’s collect our inaccurate assumptions throughout the year and revisit our collection regularly to appreciate how our understanding of the world changes over time. We should encourage our children to join us on this journey and then reflect, along with them, on how it felt to be right when we were in fact being wrong. Together, we will count the misconceptions that we have cheerfully discarded. And if the total turns out greater than it was in the previous year, then we will know for sure that we have grown wiser.

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