We are all capable of believing things which we know to be untrue, and then, when we are finally proved wrong, impudently twisting the facts so as to show that we were right.
Intellectually, it is possible to carry on this process for an indefinite time: the only check on it is that sooner or later a false belief bumps up against solid reality, usually on a battlefield.
While George Orwell penned these words in 1946 they read like they were written today. They reminded me of a question I was recently challenged by, “What if half of your closely held beliefs were false and you didn’t know which half?”
I asked someone this question recently and they replied, “That is not possible.” It brought a smile to my face as it confirmed how badly we want to be right.
The crazy thing is that most people, when confronted by evidence that they are wrong, do not change their point of view or course of action.
I recently reread a fascinating book full of examples and compelling research about how we think. Mistakes Were Made (but Not by Me): Why We Justify Foolish Beliefs, Bad Decisions, and Hurtful Acts by Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson. It explores why as human beings we can and do justify ourselves even when we are wrong.
Why is it that even irrefutable evidence is not enough to pierce the mental armor of self-justification?
“We all want progress, but if you're on the wrong road, progress means doing an about-turn and walking back to the right road; in that case, the man who turns back soonest is the most progressive.”
But few people are willing to do an about-turn and walk back to the right road.
I've Made Mistakes
Whether the consequences of our mistakes are trivial or tragic, small or large, life changing or life threatening, most of us find it difficult, if not impossible, to say, “I was wrong; I made a terrible mistake.”
Recently, on two separate occasions, I listened to someone tell me about a relationship that was failing. In both cases, they talked about the mistakes that were made.
As I listened it dawned on me that they were stuck. Sure there was plenty of blame to be shared. They knew mistakes were made. But in the absence of a change of heart they were standing on the side of being right—even if they might be wrong.
Learning From Mistakes
The last chapter of Mistakes Were Made (but Not by Me) begins with this story.
A man travels many miles to consult the wisest guru in the land. When he arrives, he asks the wise man: “Oh, wise guru, what is the secret of a happy life?” “Good judgment,” says the guru. “But oh, wise guru,” says the man, “how do I achieve good judgment?” “Bad judgment,” says the guru.
The Worst Place to Be
You know the worst place to be? Knowing you have screwed up or are in the midst of moral lapse and having no one care enough about you to come along side of you and tell you.
This is where we live when we hold tightly to self-justification. Wisdom and friends get pushed aside when we are unteachable and are unwilling to admit mistakes and own bad decisions.
The Next Right Step
Reflecting on my past I clearly never wanted to admit making a mistake. However, the lack of personal admission does not wipe out our mistakes. It just keeps us from being teachable.
I can’t go back and undo the past. But I can make it my aim to take the next right step. The next right step cannot be discovered clinging to self-justification. Progress, influence and impact require a teachable spirit.
A teachable spirit allows us to admit mistakes, forgive wrongs and effectively respond to adversity and challenges.
In Search of Truth
I am fairly certain I don’t have the power to change people. But I am confident I have the ability to forgive people. To forgive is a choice; an act of the will. To ask for forgiveness is also a choice; the ownership of the truth.
I am not going to agree with everyone all the time. But I do have the power to love people in ways that are impossible for them to understand apart from the grace of God.
We can never do an about-turn and walk back to the right road in the absence of a teachable spirit.
Impact, influence and growth are the fruits of a teachable spirit.
When we possess a teachable spirit we enable ourselves to discover truth.
Recommendation Reading — Click to Order
Mistakes Were Made (but Not by Me): Why We Justify Foolish Beliefs, Bad Decisions, and Hurtful Acts by by Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson