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May 27, 2018
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It’s all right to be wrong!

By: Steven Campbell
March 30, 2018
Mind, Body and Spirit

Our natural instinct is to be right all the time and when we are wrong, our feelings reflect our failures.

In other words, when we goof up, or fail at something, we feel bad about ourselves. This is not surprising since our feelings about ourselves do not come from the failures; they come from what we say about our failures.

However, here is some exciting news! We can change what we say about ourselves when we goof up, and about ourselves when we fail.

Stephen Hawking showed us how.

His genius, which arguably deserves a Nobel Peace Prize, brought together several different but equally fundamental fields of physical theory: gravitation, cosmology, quantum theory, thermodynamics and information theory.

And in the process, he demonstrated that his willingness to change his mind were NOT a sign of weakness, but a reflection of his adventurous and intellectually engaged mind. 

Let me give you some examples.

In 2000, Hawking placed a very public $100 bet with Gordon Kane at the University of Michigan that the Higgs boson, a subatomic particle theorized in the 1960s, would never be found. In the world of professional physics, being right is the surest route to professional rewards, so Hawking’s bet was tantamount to an insult and Nobel Prize-winner Peter Higgs took the bet personally. 

When the Higgs boson was found in 2012, Hawking made a global spectacle of paying off the $100 wager. He not only admitted he was wrong, he called for Higgs (who had become his longtime critic) to be given the Nobel Prize.

You see, for Hawking, making bets was not personal. It was just science. In fact, Hawking had been losing bets on fundamental questions of physics for years. However, rather than feeling shame when he lost, he reveled in being wrong, knowing that science advances when its participants are wrong, as well as right.

A second example; in 1974, Hawking bet CalTech physicist Kip Thorne that Cygnus X-, a bright object in the constellation Cygnus, was NOT a black hole. However, accumulated evidence in 1990 showed that it was and Hawking gladly paid off the bet again.

A third example; in 1997, Hawking bet CalTech physicist John Preskill that information swallowed by a black hole could never be retrieved. Since the basic tenets of physics would be undermined if Hawking were right, he worked on this problem for seven years. In 2004, he announced at a major physics conference that he’d devised a calculation that proved him wrong! Physicists around the world knew of this bet and when Hawking presented Preskill with a baseball encyclopedia to cover the bet, he also was embracing his own error.

Hawking’s humility and graciousness is unfortunately rare among many of our nation’s leaders, where conceding the slightest error is viewed as a weakness to be derided and exploited.

However, Hawking’s life can teach us that a willingness to change one’s mind is NOT a sign of weakness, but a sign of a mind which is centered on a desire for truth. 

Hawking not only left us with his resilience to an incapacitating disease and his best seller, “A Brief History of Time,” he showed us that it is alright to be wrong, for being wrong can also show us what is right!

This reflects my favorite quote from Thomas Edison. “I did not fail 999 times [when looking for the filament of a light bulb], I simply found 999 ways that didn’t work.”

 

Steven Campbell is the author of “Making Your Mind Magnificent” and conducts “The Winners Circle” every two months at Sonoma Mountain Village in RP. Contact Steven at 480-5007 or go his website at stevenrcampbell.com to ask about his one-day free monthly seminar.