I’m someone who finds it difficult to admit that I’m wrong. Not so much because I like to always be right, although that is, of course, a part of it. It’s more that I’m a bit of a wimp.
For some reason, being wrong makes me feel afraid. Like I might head out into uncharted waters. Conversely, being right means feeling safe in going ahead with the myriad tiny computations and calculations my brain makes each day, based on my ‘right’ assumption or decision. So because I’m also quite a practical, habit driven kind of girl, being right is simply easier. Cleaner.
But what if being wrong is actually the best way to learn about something or someone?
Trial and error is hardly a new concept, and it’s something that I’ve had to become pretty comfortable with since I’ve become a mum. So when I recently came across the ‘10 rules for being human’, (Cherie Carter-Scott), two of them really spoke to me.
The first is this: “There are no mistakes, only lessons. Growth is a process of trial, error, and experimentation. The ‘failed’ experiments are as much a part of the process as the experiments that ultimately ‘work’.”
This is a life lesson I hope to share with my daughter while she is young. I know that it’s very different to be a child now, in a different time and place than I was. But I’m sure a lot of it still centres on wanting to be normal. Wanting to fit in - whether it’s so that you’re noticed, or so that you’re not. And, looking around at the kids I see, they seem to take this even more seriously than we did when we were their age. So it would be a blessing for her to have the realisation that it’s okay to get things wrong – from the food that currently misses her mouth, to an exam, a hairstyle or a partner, and everything in between. Missing her mouth with her dinner for one mouthful means she’s more certain of where it is for next time. At her age, it doesn’t bother her. So I want to help her continue to feel secure that being wrong is how we learn what’s right for us.
It’ll be a challenge for me, because I took being wrong pretty seriously even as a small child. But I’m going to give it a red-hot go.
With the benefit of hindsight, I see how painful and scary it must have been for my mum to watch the mistakes I made, and try to help put me back together when I fell apart. But patch me up she did. And I’m lucky enough to have an amazing husband, family and friends to carry on doing that for me now.
Maybe they’ve all kept doing it to help me learn this, the other Rule that Cherie Carter-Scott puts so well: “Lessons are to be repeated until they are learned. A lesson will be presented to you in various forms until you have learned it. When you have learned it, you can go on to the next lesson.”
My lesson has been presented to me over almost three decades, in various different forms, and by many people and situations. And in the last few years, I think I might finally have grasped it: being right all the time is not an attractive trait. It prevents you from showing vulnerability. And if you appear to believe you have no vulnerabilities, you’re an easy person to dislike. It can make you hard work as a friend, and impossible as a partner. It’s not been fun to realise I might well be this person. But it has been necessary. So before I get up and move on to my next lesson, I’m taking a minute to wonder where my love of rightness came from.
I’m going to go ahead and guess that my comfort in correctness is related to the culture I grew up in. It may just be a part of the inculcated knowledge of my education and upbringing: do not question those in authority.
If you assume that what you’re being told by a figure of authority – be they a parent, teacher, police officer or loved one – must automatically be correct; then you absorb their opinions, their version of reality, as fact. And so as you age and develop your version of reality, it’s based loosely on theirs, with the addition of those select few pieces of knowledge that stick with you through life. And you don’t question your version of reality, because it’s uncomfortable to do that.
But I don’t want my daughter to feel like that, because with maturity I’ve come to see that accepting things unquestioningly does more harm than good.
It’s funny, because when I read the ‘lessons’ rule back, it could also be read to sound similar to the rote method of teaching. The process of repeating something over and over until it sticks in your mind is fabulous for some things, like times tables and the alphabet. But its flaw is that it doesn’t engender understanding – it’s simply a memory tool. Not all of my teachers used it; and not all the way through my education – at college and university I certainly learned to question, and to apply the theories to every day life. But it’s left a permanent residue in my psyche. Once something sticks in my head, I’m comfortable in knowing it, and in it being right. I wear it like a snugly jumper.
But knowledge now is so much more fluid than it was. With gigantic advances in medicine, science and society now easily accessible via the Internet, it’s so easy for our children to question what they are told. It’s a constant conveyer belt of information; flowing ceaselessly as we read, listen to the radio, watch TV and so on. Those pieces of information that we respond to get picked off and stored in little compartments for use at a later date. So much of what I’ve always believed to be right, I’ve had to unlearn.
As part of building a new life in a new country, I have given up and taken in so much knowledge about culture, history, weather, language - so now I need to knuckle down and work on those last few stubborn pieces that won’t shift. I need to accept that knowledge truly is constant. It evolves, and I need to keep up. Otherwise the lessons that I offer my daughter won’t help her at all.
What I want for my daughter is simple and yet terrifying. I want her to have a mother who has enough confidence to question her own beliefs if they aren’t holding up. A mother who will teach her that to question is to understand. Once she understands something, she will be able to decide whether or not it’s a piece of information she wants to keep in her brain; or let it drop off the belt.
To be that mother, I’m going to carry on taking steps outside my comfort zone. Laughing at myself. Being wrong. Being vulnerable. Because to do anything else would be to doubt my husband, family and friends who are there to catch me when I fall. To do anything else would be to show my daughter that being right is all that matters.