Trial And Error: On The Fear Of Being Wrong

Law firms are lush with Type A personalities, perfectionists, and over-achievers. This may be because the practice of law is often resembles the practice of medicine, where any type of mistake is extremely costly and irreversible. As such, mistakes in these industries are rarely tolerated. A firm’s first-years do not speak up, act up, or go home for that matter; instead, they reread every brief, every motion until it’s flawless and they’re blameless. Nowadays, in the legal profession, associates get little experience in the courtroom where there’s no room for (trial and) error.

However, managers in every field agree, it’s vital for rising stars to gain first-hand experience. There will, of course, be mistakes. Attorneys are known for having tempers in these moments. But Kathryn Schulz—expert on being wrong (no, seriously)—would have us believe that a series of cultural and learned behavior has led society to believe “rightness” equals “goodness” and that this is a huge social and practical problem. Embracing being wrong is, in fact, a key to how our businesses and people thrive. According to Schulz, here’s why.

“Do you remember that Loony Tunes cartoon where there’s this pathetic coyote who’s always chasing and never catching a roadrunner? In pretty much every episode of this cartoon there’s a moment where the coyote is chasing the roadrunner and the roadrunner runs off a cliff, which s fine, he’s a bird, he can fly. But the thing is that the coyote’s fine too. He just keeps running—right up until the moment that he looks down and realizes that he’s in mid-air. That’s when we’re wrong about something…we’re already wrong, we’re already in trouble, but we feel like we’re on solid ground… [the feeling of being wrong] feels like being right.”

We’ve all had instances when we are over confident about our rightness. For example, we’ve discovered the best defense, the best argument for the case based on the facts. In these moments, generally, we assume anybody who disagrees with us is ignorant of the evidence or of the logic to which we ourselves are privy.

As soon as we become aware that these same opponents—either our adversary on the opposite bench or sometimes our own second chair—do have access to the same information, we assume it’s still a deficiency on their part. Correct puzzle pieces, wrong combination. If, in the end, these people still disagree, our last assumption is that they’re enemies, distorting the truth “for their own malevolent purposes.” It is this attachment to our rightness that leads to the mistreatment of colleagues and other unprofessional behavior in the office, but, just as important, it prevents us from making mistakes that can lead to breakthroughs.

Students attend law school because they are united in the same desires to problem solve. When presented with a case and facts in that case, attorneys must decide what is the best combination of arguments to convince a judge or jury to award a desirable verdict. Law students should be the first to admit cases are not always won by “rightness.”

So why the obsession with being right?

While it’s no goal to be wrong, an incorrect answer by a risk-taking associate, naïve first-year, or for any other reason should not be a punishable offense. Instead, turn it around. Many of the most interesting products and innovative concepts have emerged from trial and error (Also see, Duly Noted). A process you should consider rewarding at your firm.

-WB  

For Schulz’s entire March 2011 presentation, watch the video here.

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  1. Pingback: Do Blogs And Social Media Alone Teach New Grads To Be Good Layers? |

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