The test of a first rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function. – F. Scott Fitzgerald
When I tell people that I perform magic for a living the response is sometimes a burst of laughter. I get it – in many people’s minds magic is for children: both as the audience and as the magicians.
And while I DO perform magic for the silliness and childlike wonderment it inspires, there is another reason I try to share my craft with as many people as possible: Magic reminds us that we’re always missing something.
If you’ve ever witnessed a really great piece of magic you know what I mean. Despite being rational and intelligent, despite having fairly reliable senses, when we experience magic we can’t help but recognize the limits of our perceptions. We KNOW we’ve been fooled by logical means, but we can’t seem to see the logic.
We’re always missing something, not just during the performance of magic, but in every moment of every day. Our perceptual abilities are inherently limited, which means there’s a degree of uncertainty attached to most of the things we claim to know.
Many of the people I’ve connected with know that this is true. But they also admit that this truth is easy to forget. And when we think we’ve got things figured out is when we can really run into trouble.
Magic reminds us of a simple, but important, truth: We’re always missing something.
A few years ago the old football stadium in Hamilton was torn down and a newer, better stadium was constructed in its place. I, like many other Hamiltonians, had watched a lot of football games in the old stadium and had come to feel pretty familiar with it.
One day I was discussing the construction with my cousin. I was lamenting the fact that the newer stadium the city was building didn’t seem like it was any different than the original one, at least from the outside.
“Well, I know the seats are going to be a lot nicer,” my cousin reasoned. “And they’ve rotated the stadium so the players won’t have to worry about the sun in their eyes anymore.”
I laughed with a hint of condescension. “They did not rotate the stadium. It looks the exact same as it’s always looked.”
“No, you’re wrong. They’ve rotated it.”
You see how this conversation panned out. By the end we were both making bets, and feeling a bit more “fired up” than we were at the outset of our chat.
To solve the matter we did what anyone would do in our situation, and jumped on Google.
It didn’t take very long to feel awful, sinking feelings in my gut. I was totally wrong. My cousin was definitely right. I felt completely embarrassed, not only that I’d been wrong, but that I’d had such unrelenting conviction in my assertion.
My ego got a good bruising that day, as anyone who’s ever been wrong will likely attest. The thing is that we’re not very good at being wrong, even though we’re wrong so very (and I do mean VERY) often. Being right feels so good. Who doesn’t love being able to say “I told you so”?!
Who doesn’t love being able to say “I told you so”?!
Psychologists have described something they call “the certainty bias” as one of the inherent flaws in our cognition. Coping with uncertainty is hard, so we collapse our ideas into one resolute explanation. This allows us a bit of respite from the anxiety that comes with uncertainty.
The problem comes along when, instead of acknowledging the potential error of our ways, we double-down on our hypothesis. When presented with information that doesn’t align with our views of the world, instead of thoughtfully considering how it might change our construction of reality we reject it outright as false, since it doesn’t fit the model we have.
The certainty bias and the confirmation bias do wonders for our egos, but little for our dialogues. Our need to be in the right gets in the way of constructive conversation. Our inability to admit to our errors precludes us from discovering better solutions to our problems, from forging healthier relationships, and from evolving into our better selves.
What do we do about this? Here are three strategies that I use regularly to deal with my need to be right. I offer them here in the hopes that you might find some value in them yourself.
- Remember that we’re always missing something – This simple admission creates the space for yet unperceived possibilities. It also allows me to acknowledge that my judgements about the world, and what is possible, may, in fact, be wrong. It allows me to embrace new information, and invite new perspectives.
- Celebrate mistakes – Our institutions (particularly in education) are set up to deter us from making errors. Perhaps this is why we find it so hard to admit when we make them. As we’ve already seen, errors are inevitable. Instead of fearing, ridiculing, or otherwise judging mistakes I attempt to do the exact opposite. When I’m wrong I give myself a high-five for discovering that I’m wrong. When my clients find themselves in the wrong I applaud their courage to accept it. It’s a game-changer that makes it easier to take risks, and engage in fruitful dialogue.
- Practice creativity – Creativity is all about coming up with new ideas, many of which will be awful, useless, and silly. As my co-author Joel and I have said elsewhere, we don’t get to the good ideas without going through the bad ones. By practicing having lots of ideas lots of the time I’ve gotten better at detaching my ego from my creative efforts and accepting the inevitability of bad ideas.
As the world seems to grow in entropy and chaos, it’s important to respect the complexity of it all. While we think we’ve got things figured out, it’s reasonable for us to doubt our certainty. Perhaps now more than ever. In order to move forward together we’ll need to get good at acknowledging our limitations, and working within them.
In order to elevate our consciousness we’ll need to be better at resolving the differences in our perspectives. Intellectual humility is a virtue worth pursuing.
Though, I might be wrong about that.