March 8, 2012

News & Opinion: Being Wrong Can Be So Right

By: Sally Haldorson @ 4:19 PM – Filed under: Management & Workplace Culture

One of my favorite books from last year was Being Wrong by Kathryn Schulz. We gave away 20 copies of the book to share the wealth, and about it I wrote:

Can a doggedly-researched book that relays the historical lineage of error, attempts to uncover the truth beneath truth, and even discusses something as impenetrable as "The Optimistic Meta-Induction from the History of Everything," be charming, accessible and eminently readable? Apparently so because Being Wrong by Kathryn Schulz is just that.

Many of us remain uncomfortable with being wrong, in admitting that no amount of mental gymnastics and/or life experience can prevent us from buying that lemon of a car, hiring the unqualified person, or adding yet another self-help book to our shelves to teach us how to stop making the same mistakes. But, "[e]ven if you can't be brought to believe that error itself is a good thing," Schulz says, "I hope to convince you by the end of this book that it is inseparably linked to other good things, things we definitely do not want to eliminate--like, say, our intelligence." Your intelligence will certainly be fueled by reading this book and you may even recover some of your good-humor about the times you were...and the times you will be...wrong.

The reason I'm revisiting Kathryn Schulz and Being Wrong today is because Critical Mass, the blog of the National Book Critics Circle Board of Directors, just featured a Q&A with her that is chock full of insight. (The National Book Critics Circle awards will be announced tonight by the way.) Kathryn Schulz isn't just the author of a really great book, she also "won the Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing, [and] she accepted a job as book editor at New York magazine." Because so much of what we do here at 800-CEO-READ is about recommending the best business books to readers, and I'm about to take over as curator of our new KnowledgeBlocks service, I found Schulz's thoughts on being a critic, in light of her research into "being wrong," fascinating.

On being wrong as a critic:

I assume readers are smart enough to understand that criticism is a subjective exercise, but mostly because I believe we should be non-neutral about literature—should, in fact, be as passionate about it as possible. I do think, though, that critics are obliged to do the opposite of that old idiom: we do have to account for our taste—to explain with as much precision as possible why we respond to a book the way we do.

On her new job as book editor for New York Magazine:

One of the things that awes and delights me about literary culture is the sheer range of stuff out there—including really interesting, excellent work on obscure subjects, or by obscure authors—and part of what I hope to bring to this job is my own excitement about exploring that. It seems to me that one of the great things about covering books is that it’s among the least intellectually restrictive mandates imaginable.

On the effects of our multimedia culture on reading:

I will confess that there are cultural trends affecting the way we read and write that worry me. Above all, I fret about the many forces that diminish attention span and reward skimming and shallow reading. Those really do pain me, especially when I detect them in myself.

Hear more from Kathryn Schulz here in her TED talk "On Being Wrong" from March 2011.

What is of such value in Schulz's message is that people should embrace, and be forgiving, of all that makes us human. Make sure to watch the video above all the way to the end. Her last few lines are memorable, and important. But here is a gem from her talk that I think can dispel some of our frustrations about being wrong. If we were all right, all the time, then what would inspire us?

Our capacity to screw up it's not some embarrassing defect in the human system. Something we can eradicate or overcome. It's totally fundamental to who we are. Because unlike God, we don't really know what's going on out there. And unlike all the other animals, we are obsessed with trying to figure it out. To me, this obsession is the source and root of all of our productivity and creativity.


About Sally Haldorson

Sally Haldorson's job as 800-CEO-READ’s General Manager is to make 800-CEO-READ a great place to work for our employees, and a consistently high-performing customer service organization for our clients, authors, and our partners in the publishing industry. In addition to her General Manager duties ensuring collaboration, integration, and quality, she reads, writes, reviews, curates, and edits for the company. Helping craft The 100 Best Business Books of All Time used parts of both skill sets. Outside of work, she is most likely to be found hitting a tennis ball around or hanging out with her boys (husband, child, dog) at home.