On being wrong

. . . if you cling to what you once knew, you’ll be left behind. Keep learning.

That’s from Joe Sheehan in a piece (“When Statheads Age“) on a baseball-geek site I frequent called FanGraphs. But that matters not. A similar sentiment can be found in many places. One of those is the heart of an old teacher. All my professional life I exhorted students to pursue the path of lifelong learning. We work our muscles to stay fit, why not our brains? But I have to say I didn’t really know what I meant by learning. Oh, I could have recited the usual list like learn to play the guitar, or learn to play golf, or learn a new language, or some manual art, or whatnot. But it’s not what I wanted. I wanted them to do what I thought real learning was, which was being wrong. I found it hard to say that in the context of high school in which quite a bit of energy is expended on being right. So I just encouraged them to stay curious and open-minded, the usual platitudes, not such bad advice. I like to think I mostly gave out not-too-bad-advice over the course of my career!

But real learning is when you run down the maze and smack the wall head first. Back, left, or right—going forward is clearly wrong. That’s good stuff to know. One does not have to be bloodied or bruised to be wrong. We don’t have to burn our hands to know something is hot, that’s one of the benefits of age. It’s hard to be wrong, the bruises to the ego are as lasting as those to the skin. That’s the key for me, that we really learn best when we get rid of the ego. I think the entire notion of ego, in the Freudian sense, is hopelessly out-of-date. Much of that man’s work has undue influence on how we think about ourselves, he was certainly a bright and creative fellow but let’s get rid of these old-fashioned mechanistic schemes of the mind, they don’t help. Newtonian mechanics gave the world a lot of things, but is applicable only in a narrow subset of all the interactions science has shown us are possible. The universe requires an update of those notions, turning on their heads such fundamental things as mass, energy, time, and space. Shouldn’t we expect our ideas about how the brain and mind work to require similar updating?

I’m not mystical enough to go with the spiritual view of ego-death, the state of full awareness and transcendence. I’m more of a day-to-day, down-to-earth guy. It’s more that I think of the mind as an ecology, a system of interactions rather than a set of structures. And one of those interactions is to cling, that is in the sense of hold fast or adhere to. The verb to clench is of the same lineage as cling. Our ego is our cling-mechanism. It’s not surprising we have such a thing, it’s a sea of uncertainty out there and a good instinct in such a situation is to grab on to whatever flotsam is closest. But we aren’t machines, we are organisms, we are in a state of flux, inhaling and excreting and moving and metabolizing and repairing and consuming. The fists we use to clench with in our minds are not fixed steel clasps, they aren’t cinched or bolted. They are free to move on their own, to come and go as they please. Those hooks in our head we use to hang things are alive, they can evolve and adapt and become un-hooks just as easily.

This is the letting go that I mean. To unclench, as it were. We don’t have to let it go in the sense of letting it get away. Whatever it is, it is still there, we just don’t grip it as tightly. We can put it down and pick out something else, like trying on a new pair of trousers, and don’t you think trousers is a more splendid word than pants? But I could be wrong, and that’s where I started. We have such an inverted value on the word wrong. Wrong is just a note by the universe that this path isn’t as open to possibilities as another path. It seems to me to be a powerful learning opportunity, this idea of being wrong, and having to unbind your mind and embrace the new.

We love our opinions and assumptions, they are lifeboats in the ocean. We nurture our biases, they are safe and comforting in crazy world. Learning is hard, it is filled with unfamiliar and discordant notes, but those are the ones we need to tune in to if we want to keep our minds fit and ready for what comes next. No one knows what comes next! Isn’t that wonderful?




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