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TED Talk Tuesday: Reframing How We Think About Being Wrong

Jeff Miller

Chief Learning Officer and Vice President of Organizational Effectiveness, Cornerstone OnDemand

This article is part of our monthly TED Talk Tuesday series, spotlighting can't-miss TED Talks and their key takeaways. You can learn more about our partnership with TED here.

Most of us are absolutely terrified of being wrong. In fact, according to American journalist and author Kathryn Schulz, many of us will do anything to avoid it. But this fear of being wrong is debilitating. It eats up innovation and leaves us worse off as people, employees and organizations. In fact, it might seem antithetical to create a work environment that encourages being wrong, but these spaces tend to better support innovation and new avenues for achievement.

Take the popular example of Steve Jobs and Apple. Jobs was young and temperamental when he founded Apple, and he had visions for the company that other board members didn't necessarily agree with. At the age of 30, Jobs was fired from his own company.

Jobs has since admitted that this failure was one of the best things that happened to his career. As he later recalled, "the heaviness of success was replaced by the lightness of being a beginner again." Jobs was able to reconnect with what he had always loved. He went on to found NeXT, which was later bought by Apple, and co-found Pixar, one of the world's most successful animation studios.

There will come a time in most of our careers where we will need to embrace failure. In her TED Talk, Schulz discusses our complicated relationship with failure and urges audiences to flip the script on negative perceptions of being wrong.

Watch the video below and read on for three key takeaways from her talk.

"Just being wrong doesn't feel like anything."

According to Schulz, we've been programmed to understand being wrong about something as something being wrong with us. This association is formed as early as grade school. The child who performs poorly on a quiz, for example, is seen as the 'careless' or 'stupid'. Their wrongness is immediately connected to who they are as a person.

"By the time you are nine years old, you've already learned, first of all, that people who get stuff wrong are lazy, irresponsible dimwits—and second of all, that the way to succeed in life is to never make any mistakes," Shultz explains.

This early distinction builds a fear of wrongness that bleeds into our future social and professional lives.

In modern workplaces, this fear has created environments filled with perfectionists who place enormous pressure on themselves and others to produce consistently spotless work. And that pressure takes up space. Perfectionism is actually a much bigger weakness than many employers think. Not only is it consistently related to detrimental work outcomes like stress, workaholism and anxiety, but employees and employers tend to limit innovation and achievement by focusing on a repetitive pursuit of perfection.

"Trusting too much in the feeling of being on the correct side of anything can be very dangerous."

In her talk, Schulz presents the example of a doctor at an elite Boston hospital. A woman came in for an operation, received surgery and was later brought to a recovery room where she noticed the bandages on the wrong side of her body. The surgeon had performed a major operation on her left leg rather than her right one. And when hospital officials spoke about the incident, they said: "For whatever reason, the surgeon simply felt that he was on the correct side of the patient."

This example reiterates that the internal sense of rightness we feel, isn't always connected to what's going on in the real world. It can even distance us from the realities of the external world so much so that we may not realize our mistakes until it's too late. Or, if you have done something wrong but are too dedicated to being right, you may be unwilling to admit to your failures and learn from them.

"We want everybody else to gaze out of the same window and see the exact same thing. But that's not true, and if it were, life would be incredibly boring."

The ability to accept that we're all going to be wrong sometimes is far more of an advantage than a disadvantage. The capacity to screw up isn't something we can eradicate —it's fundamental to the human experience. And the sooner we leave behind our obsession with perfection, the greater our capacity to succeed becomes.

Employers that are too committed to their pursuit of perfection can harm the development of their employees. This creates a stressful, irritable workplace that micromanages and erodes the confidence of employees. What's more, a work environment obsessed with perfection tends to view failure as catastrophic. So if things don't go as planned, they are less likely to persist through and learn from a failure.

It's through failure that we gain mastery. With every near-win in a person's personal or professional life, individuals are driven to improve their performance. Take Serena Williams: in 2015, the tennis star lost a big match at the U.S. Open to Roberta Vinci. But instead of letting criticism get to her, Williams used her loss as motivation to improve. When you fail, you learn and locate the spaces in your profession that could be improved. And in locating those spaces and working on them, you get a little closer to true mastery.

In order to push the envelope in any industry, people and organizations don't need to strive for perfection. Instead, they must strive to make peace with failure. The most successful people and organizations are the ones who are able to fail in the name of achievement and innovation.

Photo: TED

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