An Ode to Error: Entrepreneurship and the Importance of Being Wrong

Is your world view marked by a sense of hopelessness? Do you obsess about past errors? Do you tend to minimize or overlook positive news? If your answers are yes, you may not be clinically depressed. Maybe you’re just being realistic.

Depressed people are often told they’re just not looking at things the right way. But many studies suggest that the opposite is true—that depressives actually have a more accurate picture of life’s harshness than the rest of us. If anyone is deluded, this data suggests, it’s the majority of mentally “healthy” people, who harbor rosy illusions about their own abilities and prospects, and who spend little time wondering whether their basic beliefs and assumptions might be wrong.

Overall, it’s probably a good thing that the optimists are in charge. If we focused too much on life’s difficulties, we’d never start anything new. Nonetheless, there may be elements to admire in the depressive mindset—such as a willingness to acknowledge the possibility, even the likelihood, of error in our judgments, and to see our error-proneness as a fundamental part of our being, rather than an aberration.

That’s one of the key messages of a wonderful book that I just finished reading: Kathryn Schulz’s Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error (HarperCollins, 2010). While Amazon has the book classified under “Psychology & Counseling,” it’s composed of equal parts psychology, neurology, history, philosophy, and journalism—and I’d argue that it’s also one of the best business books of the last couple of years. That’s because Schulz, a freelance journalist who formerly edited the environmental news site Grist, encourages readers to think about the overlooked benefits of wrongness—a condition that any entrepreneur worth his salt will experience even more often than his fellow humans.

After all, being an entrepreneur is all about undertaking new ventures, which entails risk and implies the possibility of failure. And when a product or business fails, it’s usually because the core assumptions behind it turned out to be wrong. So for any entrepreneur who’s taking sufficient risks, wrongness is a familiar experience—and one that shouldn’t be too strenuously shunned or avoided, since, from Schulz’s point of view, it comes with valuable lessons about what it means to be human, and what to do better next time around. “Far from being a sign of intellectual inferiority, the capacity to err is crucial to human cognition,” Schulz writes. “Thanks to error, we can revise our understanding of ourselves and amend our ideas about the world…However disorienting, difficult, or humbling our mistakes might be, it is ultimately wrongness, not rightness, than can teach us who we are.”

As I read Being Wrong, I couldn’t help applying Schulz’s insights to the specific community I spend most of my time writing about, tech startup founders. (If you don’t have time to read Schulz’s book for yourself, by the way, you can get the gist of it by watching this 18-minute video of her March 2011 TED talk.) One thing that came to mind was a meme I’ve heard repeated many times in places outside Silicon Valley. It goes like this: Venture investors in Seattle or Boston or New York or insert-your-city-here look on failure as a black mark. That means that high-risk ideas don’t get funded, and that if you’re unlucky enough to be involved in a startup that craters, it drastically lowers your chances of winning funding from local firms in the future. In Silicon Valley, by contrast, VCs see failure as a badge of honor and a mark of experience. Scratch the résumé of any successful Valley CEO and you’ll find a string of failed startups.

Now, how much substance there is to this meme, I don’t know. I can’t point to a quantitative study to back it up. But to the extent that it’s true, it points to regional and cultural differences in attitudes toward wrongness. A failing startup can be wrong in any number of ways. It can be wrong about … Next Page »

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Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @wroush

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