Abigail Ruhman is a sophomore journalism major at MU. She is an opinion columnist who writes about student life, politics and social issues for The Maneater.
When it comes to intellectual growth, understanding that you aren’t always going to know the answer to every single question is vital. The fact that no one can know every single piece of information isn’t a shortcoming of the human race. It’s just reality. Accepting that you may not know the answer or that your answer may be wrong can be difficult, but it is a critical aspect of learning.
In a society that seems to push perfection into everyday life, even the smallest mistakes can feel like failing, but there is value in making mistakes. The constant need to have the right answer leads to a lack of deeper, conceptual learning that helps people truly grasp what they are trying to understand, according to Dr. Robert A. Kenedy, a sociology professor at York University. Kenedy explains that being wrong doesn’t mean that you failed — it means that you have the opportunity to learn.
This concept may sound cliche, but treating small mistakes as learning opportunities is actually good for you. Kathryn Schulz, author of “Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error,” explains that being right does little to show people where they actually are in life or in learning. While correct assessments of the world are needed to survive, being wrong is a part of the process. It teaches us how to adapt and think critically.
Viewing mistakes as failures isn’t fair to yourself or others. Learning from your mistakes not only teaches you the right way to do something — it also means you learned how not to do that same thing. After inventing the lightbulb, Thomas Edison stated, “I have not failed. I've just found 10,000 ways that won't work.”
By testing and retesting his hypothesis, Edison was able to eliminate multiple possible routes to creating a lightbulb, which eventually led to him finding the right answer. If Edison had allowed fear of making mistakes to stop him from even trying, then all he would have was a bunch of ways not to make a lightbulb.
Not knowing the answer or not having the right answer shouldn’t keep you from learning. In their book, “Art & Fear,” David Bayles and Ted Orland discuss the idea of perfection through the lens of a ceramics class. A ceramics teacher divided his classroom in half, and decided that each half would either be graded on quality or quantity. Those who were judged on quantity were told to make as many pots as possible and were graded on how much their final products weighed. The second group was only allowed to make one pot the entire semester.
The teacher found that the best pots were made by the group that was making as many pots as possible. While the quality group was putting all their effort into reading and theorizing, the other group was able to see how their actions actually impacted their pottery. The quantity group was able to test out their ideas with no consequences, and they learned more because of that.
Allowing people to be wrong or to just accept those gaps in knowledge leads to more intellectual and mental growth. The ability to ask questions or answer without fear of being ashamed means that everyone in that space gets to learn what isn’t the correct answer. Whether it’s a test or a task at work, knowing what the answer is not can be just as useful as the actual answer.
If you aren’t sure of the answer, knowing that you won’t be criticized for being wrong can mean that you are more open to asking a question. In other words, you become more open to growth. While feeling like the smartest person in the room can be an amazing self-confidence boost, asking questions and getting things wrong is just a part of life.
Edited by Bryce Kolk | firstname.lastname@example.org