I Was Wrong.

If you clicked on my blog, you might have been expecting a narrative on what I was wrong about, why I was wrong, and other juicy details on the train wreck associated with my advertised wrongness.  Perhaps that would have been followed by rationalization, denial, and defensiveness.  Alas, though I am often wrong, my subject is not a confession but rather what it means to be wrong, how humans deal with being wrong, and how we can harness the incredible emotions and energy that come with errors large and small.

A few months ago I stumbled across an interesting video on Youtube.  Author and journalist Kathryn Schulz talked about the concept of being “wrong” and how human beings deal with making mistakes.  What caught my attention was that she specifically held up the aviation industry as an example of how to effectively deal with errors so they don’t happen again.  Our industry long ago moved away from pointing fingers at individuals and has, in the main, taken a systematic approach to accidents. We, as an industry, focus on making structural changes to address the inevitable shortcomings of any human designed system.  The video is here:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WE3cyE5-UyM

I walked away from that video with the sense that she was right about how to be wrong.  With the magic of the internet, I chased down a little more about her message.  Turns out Ms. Schulz also spoke at the 2011 TED conference, which is a forum for bringing together interesting people who talk about “big” ideas. TED started out (in 1984) focusing on three worlds: Technology, Entertainment, Design. Since then its scope has become ever broader.  Her talk is interesting, funny, and insightful…

http://www.ted.com/talks/kathryn_schulz_on_being_wrong.html

All of this stemmed from a book she wrote last year called “Being Wrong…Adventures in the Margin of Error.”  So this was on my to-do list for a few months and when I finally bought my wife a Kindle for Mother’s day, this became the perfect opportunity to “borrow” it and download the book from Amazon.  Although Ms. Schulz is a journalist, the style of the book is a bit of Malcolm Gladwell (Blink, Outliers) and a bit of a very sincere, thoughtful, and slightly romantic literature professor all rolled into one. In the process of reading the book, I learned a lot of really neat things…rather than recount them all, I’ll highlight two:

1.  In our stream of consciousness, each of us has two little voices talking inside our heads…the story teller and the fact checker.  The story teller is the creative side of our brain.  It makes up theories for this, theories for that, and in the business world, helps us to innovate and see things not as they are but as they might be.  Balancing out our little story teller is the fact checker - nagging at us to check our facts, to compare to reality, hard data, physics, science, and engineering.  When one of these voices completely dominates, bad things happen to individuals.  Balance is necessary for optimal performance in both individuals and groups.

2.  A recurring theme is that always being right is a terrible place to be. If you’re always right then you’re never testing the edge of the envelope, you’re always taking small steps to ensure you avoid the “shame” and “disgrace” of being wrong. Yes…being wrong can have enormously grave consequences, and in those circumstances tremendous diligence is necessary and required.  But a much larger circle of human interaction and endeavor contains situations where wrongness is not so catastrophic and in fact can lead to amazing advancements. 

My purpose in sharing this on a blog devoted to energy & aviation biofuels is that we must keep ideas like this in front of us every day.  The business case for aviation biofuels does not close.  If it did, we would all be flying on renewable fuel every day.  While tremendous progress has been made in a short period, there is so much more to do.  And we won’t get there unless and until we let ourselves and others (safely) experiment, innovate, create, and yes…sometimes be wrong.