Start By Being Wrong

There is a new technique I’ve started using and applying to almost everything I do, just to see how well it works in practice.

Today seemed like a good day to share it, because it is still relatively new and exciting to me. In a few months, all of it will be so normalized and boring and uninteresting to me that I probably won’t have any motivation to talk about it.

While it is still new to me, it is not entirely untested either. I’ve already applied it with some success: In one case, it allowed me to continue collaborating with someone on a work project even though it seemed that we were stuck and would have had to split up for a while in order to make progress. In another case, it allowed me to reduce pressure on a project by realizing that there were really only very few things that were essential to get done.

Even though those are both examples from a work context, I see some potential for the approach to be suitable for many different contexts. One reason why I think that is that the original inspiration came from reading a book from 200 years ago that isn’t targeted at all to the kind of work I do: The Phenomenology of Spirit by Hegel (the German philosopher). Actually I’ve only managed to read a few pages so far, but I’m finding it quite interesting.

In the introduction, Hegel discusses the question (and I am probably oversimplifying) whether anything can be known in a reliable way. He responds to the extremely sceptical position that it is pointless to seek knowledge because ultimately we can’t ever be sure about anything:

[I]f the fear of falling into error introduces an element of distrust into science, […] it is not easy to understand why, conversely, a distrust should not be placed in this very distrust, and why we should not take care lest the fear of error is not just the initial error.
[…]
[K]nowledge in general, though it may possibly be incapable of grasping the Absolute, can still be capable of truth of another kind.

https://www.marxists.org/reference/archive/hegel/works/ph/phintro.htm

The “distrust” Hegel mentions is a reaction some people have to the idea that the Absolute isn’t accessible to human beings because we can only perceive reality in a mediated way, through our senses and interpretations.

But does it follow that no scientific knowledge can ever be trusted and so it is pointless to try and keep producing it? Hegel’s answer is No. He argues that just because our knowledge isn’t of the Absolute doesn’t mean it isn’t knowledge, or that it isn’t worth pursuing.

His proposal was to not make the mistake to be so critical, so hyper-aware and afraid of the possibility that you might be wrong about something, that you sabotage your ability to know things that could actually be quite useful in practice and that you could sufficiently rely on.

Instead of being afraid of errors, it makes more sense to embrace error, accept it, take it for granted, and actively use it as a stepping stone towards being sufficiently less wrong, at which point you are also sufficiently right.

And that leads me to my new favorite technique:

  1. For any question you are trying to answer, pick a wrong answer as the starting point. It can even be the opposite of your best guess. For this first step, it really almost doesn’t matter what it is as long as it stands in some relation to the question.
  2. Think about one way in which you are wrong, and try to be precise about it.
  3. Make an adjustment that addresses the specific wrongness you identified.
  4. Repeat the process of critical refinement until you’ve reached the limit of your ability to discern how you might still be wrong.
  5. The end. You are now sufficiently right. At least for now.

This approach differs quite drastically from what I usually do, which is to just focus on the question, to mindlessly put my mind to it, so to say, and wait until the correct answer magically appears, which sometimes works and sometimes doesn’t. I don’t know if you’ve used that “technique” before, but if you have, you will probably agree that it can be very frustrating and feels like such a waste of time if it doesn’t work.

It also differs from another common approach where you split a hard problem into smaller problems that are easier to solve and then you put it all back together, although in practice there can be a bit of overlap between the two.

Instead of asking, What is the best thing I could do, ask, What is something I can do. And unless you immediately have a much better idea, just do that and keep doing it until you understand in what way your choice failed to help you make progress towards your goal.

Isn’t there something freeing about the idea that sometimes the best thing you can do in order to make progress is to… just… make… progress? to basically remove the intermediate bit where you spend a lot of time trying to decide how exactly you might best proceed?

I’m sorry if all of that is already super obvious to you. There really isn’t more to this post. Either way, I hope I have encouraged you to go and be wrong about things, at least as a start, and I hope it’ll help you be sufficiently less wrong eventually.

P.S.: What I could do now, in principle, now that I’ve written this piece, is to read it again and ask myself, How is this not good? how am I failing to explain the point? how am I failing to explain what’s so interesting to me about it? But if I did that, I would feel like I robbed you of direct access to my errors.

P.P.S:: To be entirely honest, I did go back and changed a few words here and there. I even moved entire sentences around and rewrote one or two. Mistakes can be so glaringly obvious sometimes, but usually only after making them.

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