I consider myself the consummate fuckup. Even when I succeed in accomplishing something difficult, once the warmth of self-congratulatory celebration dissipates I can’t help thinking about every screw up and each way they’ll likely weigh me down during the course of my life the rest of my life and preclude me from divinity and the promises of pennies from heaven. I know a lot of people who think like this while we know that this manner of thinking is stupid and counterproductive, every time we try to mentally put our mistakes into perspective and balance them with our accomplishments, the inner asshole that we all have in our head won’t let us accept them, and gleefully drowns out rationality by reciting a grocery list of all our screw ups. How could we make all those mistakes?
Being Wrong provides an absorbing counterpoint to the notion that making a mistake somehow diminishes you as a person. “Twelve hundred years before Rene’ Descartes penned his famous ‘I think, therefore I am,’ the philosopher Augustine wrote ‘fallor ergo sum.’” – I err therefore I am. We shouldn’t fear error; rather, we should embrace it because it’s our capacity for making mistakes that makes us who we are. Schulz explores the nature of error: are big mistakes fundamentally different from small mistakes, or are they all essentially the same? How much does peer pressure, or crowd response, affect our capacity to blunder? Why do we remember relatively insignificant mistakes for the rest of our lives, long after they have ceased to be relevant to anything? And why do we take being wrong so personally. As Molière said, “It infuriates me to be wrong when I know I’m right.”
Shultz is a witty and dynamic writer, capable of quoting everyone from Aristotle, to Pliny the Elder, to Hamlet and Beyonce. She argues in “Being Wrong” that, of all the things we’re wrong about, our ideas about error are probably our “meta-mistake: we are wrong about what it means to be wrong.” She continues, “Far from being a sign of intellectual inferiority, the capacity to err is crucial to human cognition.” She is full of stories and anecdotes but avoids turning the book into a “wrongology slide-show”. The stories include everything from Alan Greenspan’s firm faith in the economy proved wrong, a doomsday prophet whose apocalypse wasn’t now, a sexual assault victim whose mistaken testimony jailed an innocent man and a Klansman who became an unlikely advocate for civil rights. Shultz argues that when people are confronted with their wrongness, they can either must accept it, deny it or be transformed by it.
However, her book still doesn’t read like a book; more like a collection of essays on the theory of wrongness. The book is fascinating from chapter to chapter, but there isn’t a theory that encapsulates the whole book, except that we shouldn’t worry about making mistakes. At the beginning of the book, she calls the book a study of “wrongology” but never builds the systematic arguments that “¬-ology” requires. Instead we get a “wrongologue” — a series of observations and insights that leave us feeling that we’ve had all the good thoughts one could possibly have about wrongness, but that we still don’t know which ones are . . . well, right. There’s none of the necessary conclusions about being wrong, so the book is a fascinating and compelling read, but not life-changing or groundbreaking.