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How to Let Go of Being Right

I don’t know about you, but I freaking looooooove being right.

It’s so satisfying.

So confirming.

So very, very ego boosting.

Wait. Is that a good thing?

Perhaps not.

The most damaging thing about the ego is how it limits us. It focusses on the appearance of things rather than the truth and possibility of things. It will have us seeking confirmation and asking for input only from those who already agree with us. It will stifle our creativity. It will keep us on the safe side of controversy. Ironically, in our attempt to make ourselves feel big, we make ourselves smaller and less consequential.

Ugh. That's definitely not good.

Luckily, there is a better way, and it involves a very big, very weird space rock.

Stay with me.

Avi Loeb, chair of Harvard University’s astronomy department is kind of a big deal. He has published hundreds of papers and won many prizes. He also believes it’s possible that aliens have sent a spaceship to investigate Earth. And he’s not afraid to broadcast it. In fact, he published an article about it in a very prestigious astrophysical periodical.

Loeb had several conversations with colleagues about the possibility that the unusually-shaped asteroid Oumuamua (the Hawaiian word for “scout”) may in fact, be a UFO. It’s flat, kind of sail-shaped, moves much faster than an asteroid should, and passed suspiciously close to Earth. His colleagues agree that it was indeed a very peculiar thing, but were reluctant to state their opinions publicly.

Oumuamua: either a big, weird rock, or the most important scientific discovery of all time.

“I don’t understand that,” Loeb told an Israeli newspaper. “Unfortunately, most scientists achieve tenure – and go on tending to their image.” He believes this self-limiting behavior is counter to what being a scientist is all about. Scientists should not “…worry about the ego, but about uncovering the truth. Especially after you get tenure.”

So yes, Oumuamua may turn out to be just a big, weird rock. Or it could be the most important scientific discovery of all time. Someone had to say something. Loeb saw no reason it shouldn’t be him.

For the record, I hope he’s right. But even if he’s wrong, he’ll be fine. In fact, some leaders are actually energized by being wrong.

Most of us have heard of the confirmation of the existence of the Higgs boson at CERN’s Large Hadron Collider (LHC) in 2012. This was a remarkable scientific discovery, but the truth is, in the five years that followed, scientists at the LHC hadn’t definitively found any additional subatomic particles. Seeing as the LHC was built for the purpose of discovering particles, this wasn’t a great result.

The absence of new discoveries at the LHC made lots of people very uncomfortable. Something had to be done. Some theorists wanted more time to continue their existing work in hopes something would appear. Some wanted to build a bigger collider so they could do bigger experiments. But not Cambridge University theoretical physicist David Tong. In a talk at the Royal Institution in 2017, he stated that he wanted “…to go back to the drawing board and start to challenge some of the assumptions and paradigms that we’ve been holding for the past 30 years.

That’s right. He was open to the possibility that the Standard Model (i.e., everything we know about physics presented in an equation so elegant, it will fit on a t-shirt), is wrong. And rather than feeling defeated by this notion, Tong felt “quite energized by the lack of results at the LHC.”

Tong’s peers do not endorse his notion of going back to first principles. They feel that because the Standard Model of physics has been so successful so far, it has to be right. Their instinct is to double down. But not Tong. He says, “It feels good to me that everyone was wrong. It’s when we’re wrong when we start to make progress.”

This is the very definition of intellectual humility. And by the way, since 2017, lots of new subatomic particles have been discovered at the LHC, so technically, Tong was wrong about being wrong.

When we’re expansive and curious, we’re open to possibilities. And one of the possibilities we’re open to is that we might be wrong. Intellectual humility is recognizing this fact and allowing ourselves the space to explore our blind spots.

When leaders admit they’re wrong, people trust them more, cynicism is reduced, and others feel comfortable admitting when they’re wrong too. Problems are surfaced. Decisions are better. The likelihood of stuckness decreases.

Think about your own career. What have you left unsaid, unexplored and undiscovered because you were afraid of how it would make you look? How might your career have unfolded differently if you’d released your fear of appearing stupid or silly or fantastical?

How to let go of being right:

Nothing could be simpler. Just trade ego for curiosity. Yup, you could be wrong. How fascinating! It’s time to learn more, don't you think?


The Unstuck Leader book is now available.
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