The Courage to be Wrong

Chihuahua with mohawk

I used to think being “right” was a big deal.

I had to say the right thing, dress the right way, know the right people, read the right books, live in the right neighborhood, go to the right school. It wasn’t because I wanted to, exactly, but because I thought it was a prerequisite for success.

If you want other people to respect you, then you have to look and sound a certain way, right? Makes sense, if conformity is all you’ve ever been taught.

What no one tells you is the cost. Yes, conformity gains you a certain type of approval from others, but it comes at the cost of losing your sense of self.

You have to systematically search out everything that’s a little bit “off” about you and bury it as deep as you can. You know that you can’t get rid of it — it’s a part of you, after all — but maybe you can hide it so deep that no one will ever see it, so that a world that only respects the “right” will never realize how “wrong” you really are.

Maybe, just maybe, you can fool everyone until you’re in a position of power and no one’s opinion matters anymore. Then you can be free. Right?

Umm… no.

The Power of Misfits

The people we pay attention to aren’t the masters of doing what’s “right;” they’re the misfits who have the courage to be wrong. They take whatever everyone else is doing in their industry and turn it inside out.

It’s not just about differentiation; it’s about perverting the norm, destroying sacred traditions, and screwing with the way people think. It’s about doing, saying, or living something that’s so completely unexpected that people can’t help but pay attention.

It’s about realizing that most people spend their lives breathing stale, recycled air, and then spending the remainder of your life finding and opening windows to make that air new again.

  • Who would’ve thought a movie that told a story backwards would become a cult classic that people would talk about for decades? But that’s what Christopher Nolan did with Memento.
  • Who would’ve thought paintings consisting of nothing more than splattered paint would sell for millions of dollars? But that’s what Jackson Pollock did with his art.
  • Who would’ve thought a Jewish guy from the UK would become famous by playing an anti-Semitic, socially-retarded Kazakh? But that’s what Sacha Baron Cohen did with Borat.

The one trait they all have in common: the courage to be wrong.

The Fallacy of Right and Wrong

By saying “wrong,” I’m not saying you should pander for attention, make lewd jokes, or otherwise do something bad. What I’m saying is you need to realize “right” and “wrong” exist only between quotation marks. Every day, the world decides their definition, and every day, we have the opportunity to influence what that definition becomes.

Revolutionaries don’t just burn the rules. They write new ones. In destroying the standard, they create the standard. It’s creative destruction at its finest.

Will some people dislike you? Sure, that’s the way it works. Real leaders are willing, even eager, to be disliked and even hated, not because it makes them feel important, but because they know it’s the price of change, and no one can pay that price but them.

Do you have that kind of courage?

If not, it pays to find it. No one pays attention to a coward for very long.

And if all you do is what’s “right,” then a coward is exactly what you become.

About the Author: Jon Morrow is Associate Editor of Copyblogger and Cofounder of Partnering Profits. Get more from Jon on Twitter.

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Comments

  1. Yes, yes, yes. I love this and I wholeheartedly agree. I’ve spent the last year getting the courage to be wrong, too. It’s quite liberating.

  2. I find that the more and more I just let loose and be myself, the happier I am and the more I seem to entertain and amuse others. There is nothing more contagious than joy and enthusiasm, people respond to you when you are true to who you are and have the confidence to follow your passions.

  3. Bravo, Jon. Well said. The courage to be yourself is what many people consider to be “wrong”. In this day of “building your brand”, it’s refreshing to see people being who they are, and be willing to voice controversial opinions. It seems that a lot of folks are worried about being too nicely packaged.

  4. “It’s all invented”~ Ben Zander
    So invent something ourselves….:)

  5. Be real and learn from your mistakes.. good article..

  6. Very interesting post! I love brutal honesty and aspiring to get away from the norm. It’s difficult, especially in corporate America, to try and stir the pot. I like to see individuality being encouraged professionally.

  7. You are so right :-) about the “cost” of having to be right all the time.

    When I stopped trying to be right, and focused on following my intuition / honoring my own unique truth, I found peace with who I am. This led to many breakthrough experiences, and most importantly, finding my own “voice” in the world.

    It’s a scary process and I do slip back at times because of that fear, and the societal pressures to not be so “radical” or “different”. Yet every time I do, it gets really ugly.

    So I do my best each day to ask myself something that I learned from A Course in Miracles – Do I want to be right, or do I want to be at peace? Inevitably that means in some situations, having the courage to say “I don’t need to hold onto this”, and therefore, I can admit my shortcomings because I’m no longer tied to the fear based outcome.

  8. Jon – good article. A while back I wrote a blog about the different ways the government helps you (monetary and fiscal policy) and posted it on Tip’d. Shortly after, I got criticism from an apparent veteran on the blog. The article for the most part was accurate, but the 5% that wasn’t accurate I got lambasted for. Since then, I’ve been more reluctant to write articles fearing it might not be “perfect.” Anyhow, I need to get past this inertia and start posting.

  9. Come to the Dark Side…

    But seriously you are right. I’ve observed that famous people in history like Abraham Lincoln were never popular during their time for being “wrong”. Only after the change was made did people credit them for their courage.

  10. Since it’s becoming more and more accepted to be wrong being right / doing right is now revolutionary.

  11. Lisa, excellent point. Such as the way extreme honesty and authenticity now become stronger selling tools than traditional ways to market and sell.

    But get it? The “right” (traditional) way to market and sell is now wrong, while the “wrong” way is right. ;)

  12. I’ve always liked to think that it helps to be less self-conscious and it’s been more giving to stay true to myself and speak my mind. But I don’t still like to be wrong, I’m just not afraid of it :) And it’s equally important not to make “being wrong” the thing, as there are plenty of those out there too and it gets old pretty quick..

  13. Failure or being wrong is always an option. It’s how you deal with being wrong that is critical. I have never met anyone who was right 100% of the time.

    I wrote a quick post on this topic as well.

    Jarie

  14. James, the important point is that you convinced the veteran to comment. Do you think he would have commented everything you’d written was accurate? Not likely. Saying something that was wrong prompted engagement. You should look at his comment as a reward, not a punishment.

    Lisa, that’s true in some circles, but like Brian said, “right” and “wrong” can flip-flop. Just to be clear though, the point isn’t just to do opposite of what everyone else is doing (although that’s not a bad idea). The point is that you need to define “right” and “wrong” for yourself. That’s how you begin to lead.

  15. Good points all around. By definition, those who end up doing things better do them differently, and therefore are misfits by default.

    However, there’s an additional wrinkle here. Those who end up doing things differently and better also tend to be benevolent (and in some cases not so benevolent) dictators of a sort. Consider 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey coach Herb Brooks, or Jaime Escalante of Stand and Deliver fame. They were kind of creative chieftains who saw something they wanted to do, and they wanted to do it their way. Of course, they recruited a team to get the job done, and they certainly may have listened to what that team had to say, but at some point they said, “This is where we’re headed, and this is how we’re getting there. Let’s go.”

    I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with that. And it’s hardly an American phenomenon, either; there are countless other examples in multiple endeavors and points in history. I just find it interesting that, in an American culture that values its liberty and individuality, at some point certain individuals elect to yield their liberty to another in pursuit of a shared objective.

  16. Great article! Maybe it’s because of lingering High School memories, but I really agree with the point that you shouldn’t try to be wrong just for the sake of going against the norm. What’s more important is to be unafraid of being wrong, which gives you the freedom to make better choices.

  17. There’s a scene in the X-Files movie where Moulder and Scully are driving in their car searching for tanker trucks. They come to a stop sign. The only obvious choices are “left” or “right.” Moulder takes the dirt road straight ahead.

    Lesson? You don’t necessarily have to be wrong. Just look for the dirt roads.

  18. Shane, that’s a great metaphor. Might use it in future.

  19. mmmmhhhaaaaaaahhaaa…..(evil laugh) spot on post

  20. Jon, do I see a “The X-Files Guide to Blogging” post in the making?

  21. Jon’s piece makes me realize how much social media is changing the lives of writers. Writing has always been a place where writers could safely be themselves, or anybody they wanted to be, for that matter. Alter egos ruled the day. If you wrote fiction you got to hide behind your story without much suspicion that you really are a serial killer. If you wrote politics you at least got the buffer of invisibility, at least until you went on Meet The Press.

    But not so much these days. Virtually anything writers say, or what identity they adopt when they said it, is subject to feedback through unprecedented visibility and feedback. You can write, but you can no longer hide.

    I lived this one recently on a writer’s forum where I stated some controversial views on story architecture. I was crucified, not only on the forum, but my website and my email was beseiged by assassins.

    More than ever it takes courage to be yourself as a writer. And more than ever, that’s precisely what we need to do.

  22. @Janice, I’ve gotta do a Ben Zander post one of these days. He just knocks me out.

  23. Isn’t he Robin Zander’s cousin? Kidding, kidding…

  24. The courage to put oneself out there, and to be wrong, is huge and hugely necessary, whether or not we’re being “outrageous,” “game changing,” “inventors.” We don’t know where we’ll lead ourselves and other when we start using our courage muscles in all kinds of ways.

    (I love Zander too.)

  25. @Larry “You can write but you can no longer hide.” — True True!

  26. I’d argue that it isn’t necessarily a case of being right, wrong or simply different to everyone else.

    For me, it’s more about standing out, particularly as a writer. And that can mean your writing style, voice or even the customer service you provide to clients.

    I think there’s, albeit small, a distinction between being different and standing out from the crowd.

  27. This is a great reminder to do and write the things that you’re passionate about, even when whatever that is isn’t the norm. A rebellious writer is a repected writer in my book.

    P.S.
    “Everyday, the world decides their definition, and everyday, we have the opportunity to influence what that definition becomes.”

    Isn’t the use of “everyday” incorrect here? Shouldn’t it be “every day.” I’m not trying to be nitpicky, I’m just trying to settle this rule in my head once and for all for my own proofing efforts! :D

  28. At the end of the day, people connect on values, but the values aren’t always obvious and can sometimes be surprising. Sometimes it takes something different to spark a latent value.

  29. jessielynn, as used in the post, “every day” would be correct (fixed). “Everyday” is appropriate as an adjective, such as “everyday clothing.”

  30. @Sonia @Brian @Janet
    I think it’s part of the third tribe’s mission to integrate the “measured world” with the “universe of possibilities” in a remarkable way and a way that suits us down to the ground. ;)

    That’s a cheap trick Brian. :)

  31. I believe Wayne Gretzky the Hocky great said, “Every shot you don’t take is one you miss.”

    And that is the way of it in the real world, not just on the court or on the ice, if you don’t take the shot its a guarantee you will not make it happen.

    Tho, Seth Godin pointed out an interesting corollary he said winners quit a lot. They quit the non-essential and focus on their mission…. I have to say that this principle of his opened my eyes to a lot of things.

  32. You’re right on with this article. Especially like this a lot: Revolutionaries don’t just burn the rules. They write new ones.

  33. I apply this approach as often as sensibly possible – you have to remain connected to the mainstream norm of things but have a ‘risk taking’ version of you running alongside.
    This part of you will identify and seek to fill gaps that no-one else sees – it’s what generates new products and services. I advised a colleague today (who’s always complaining about not getting anywhere) that he needed to take at least one scary (but measured) risk a week and he laughed at me incredulously. He’s being doing that for a couple of years now and he gets quite depressed about his stuckedness. Like they say, not taking risks is the biggest risk of all.

  34. We can’t be afraid to step up and go against the crowd. I’ve been practicing this on my blog. It’s hard to put myself out there, but when I do I’m usually rewarded.

    I only say what I believe is true and it’s felt by the readers.

    I still have a long way to go, but each day I gather more courage and conviction. The stronger I get the happier I become too. Pretty cool side effect.

  35. Tom Peters says in his book “ReImagine” that for companies to be successful in the modern world, they need to start to employ the weird, diverse and creative types. They are the innovators, the radicals and the ones who aren’t afraid to break away from the norm and find new paths.

    Btw, Sacha Baron Cohen’s new alter ego, Bruno, is just as “wrong” on just as many levels as Borat was!

  36. Great post. You have dramatically changed my way of thinking. From now on I’ll be looking at life and everything else with a completely different perspective. Thanks for opening my eyes to a brand new world.

  37. I agree with Havoc Marketing- my thinking too has been altered. It says somewhere that we’re to yield to rebirth in each moment – once your eyes are opened, the world is brand new and it’s almost like being born anew!

  38. Kotter’s book on change points it out pretty well – most people are “managers” (or keepers) of ideas, processes and systems they didn’t invent. They aren’t vested in the invention process or the result, just the things they’re “managing.”

    It doesn’t take long for those things to ossify, and a manager’s natural tendency is to just ‘let it ride.’ Real entrepreneurs, real thinkers, real explorers learn to love it when the hard, fast places start to crack from new movement.

    The sound and feel (even when loud and painful) are evidence of the coming of something new, better, faster…

    GREAT POST!

  39. Geez, you guys are making me blush.

  40. Jon, I’m just now starting to accept the risk of wrongness. Feels pretty good.

    Wayne’s take above was interesting to me because I immediately thought about Seth Godin, too.

    But I didn’t think about how winners quit a lot (I had actually never read that idea of his -cool). I thought about how he revels in good mistakes.

    Just like this post of its readers. I’m willing to risk it, and I’m not about to lose my sense of self over acceptance. I did that for a while already.

    Yes is the new boring as hell.

  41. Wow! Another post on failure, being wrong, not being perfect.

    It seems like the universe is aligned this week.

    As you say, those that get over their fear of being wrong will find success much quicker than those who stay mired in mediocrity.

    I wrote a post about failure in a very similar light.
    http://www.lifemaven.net/failure-is-an-option/

  42. (Hey Scott, good to see you!)

  43. Being wrong is the best! Some people are so scared to go against the norm that they never take steps towards being themselves. Trust me, I used to be scared to death to make anyone upset or go against what people told me to do. Now I do it on a daily basis, and it rocks.

    The thing is… don’t be wrong just for the sake of being wrong. Show others what you believe is right.

    Awesome post.

  44. “Hurts so good.” Good post. I think you can get by pretty well by no deviating though. Just make sure when you go against the grain, what you are doing really can be perceived as ‘cool’ and ‘right in a different way’.

  45. People who need to be right are dangerous. And abundant. You’ll find them in governments, at schools, in churches, in businesses, on blogs, on sporting teams, on radio and in every walk of life.

    They’re not really interested in learning, connecting or considering any thoughts or ideas other than their own. They periodically feign humility but it’s just a show. They don’t discuss; they deliver a sermon. If not, a tirade. They don’t talk with you; they talk at you.

    They are not interested in the greater good; they are (often) self-absorbed, unaware, delusional egomaniacs who like to show others how intellectually, academically, philosophically and spiritually superior they are. They definitely don’t want you or I to teach them anything.

    I have many strong opinions (no shit) but as a rule, I am open for discussion, correction and education on most things, as long as the chat transpires in a civil, logical and respectful way and as long as my educator is humble, open minded and well-meaning.

    Irrational, self-righteous, loud-talking, ranting zealots annoy me. The more you an I need to be right, the more shut down we become to what the world and everyone and everything in it has to teach us. The more we will miss out on.

    If (some of) our political and religious leaders were less concerned with being right and more concerned with being righteous, perhaps the world would be a very different place.

    But that’s just what I think; I could be wrong.

    Craig

  46. Jon, great post. This is the essence of branding and marketing. There are still entire industries where everybody assumes a there’s a “right” way of marketing the category, and follows suit. In such cases, the entrepreneur who is brave enough stands to make a fortune by daring to be ‘wrong’.

  47. On a trip to the US, my 9yo daughter at the time observed that “they are driving on the wrong side of the road”.
    I said, ‘no, they are driving on the other side.’
    She remembers that lesson to this day. One person’s wrong is another persons right. Your failure is another’s success.

  48. Well said! It’s a refreshing and profound viewpoint indeed. Image a world where everyone chose to be who they are…

  49. Great post but I liked your pic. HOT DOG. HAHAHA
    Thanks for nice post!

  50. Well done! I think you’ve given a lot of people some courage here and there is nothing wrong with admitting mistakes. I guess that you never know what you can learn until you make mistakes, however as long as you can see where they’ve been made you’ll become far more knowledgeable.

  51. I totally agree with every single word in this post. I have been trying to conform a lot lately, and been pretty miserable. I will start accepting myself for what I am first, so that others can follow my example. Thanks

  52. Jon, your excellent article got me thinking. Speaking personally, it’s seldom an issue of right and wrong, more an issue of following my heart regardless.
    I’ll do almost anything to be loved and admired, but I’d rather be viewed with fear and loathing (as I am by vested interests in the Australian nursery industry) than compromise my values.

  53. I believe it’s also a case of “fortune favours the brave” or even “better to have tried and failed than never to have tried at all”.

    Although I argue… Borat was never going to be wrong ;) but hey… perhaps I’m wrong?

  54. Daniele from Italy :

    Very good and nice post, Jon.

    I’m wrong, I say the wrong thing, dress the wrong way, read the wrong books… but I think they are not wrong things, they are mine things.

    I’m free to say, read, dress as I want. In Italy we tell about wrong people as the “black sheep”. I’m a black sheep.

  55. No one will care if you are right in 5 minutes time, in fact they will probably forget you were wrong. We’ve got so much to thank the MTV generation for:)

  56. I ran away from home. I dropped out of college. I did what I had to do. And I don’t regret a single thing I did. My life has never been better!

    This article just nails it! There is nothing more boring, dull and lifeless than a person losing himself by doing what everyone wants.

    As Seth Godin once said: “The riskiest thing to do is to play safe.”

  57. Very inspirational. This article justifies what I’ve been naturally doing my whole life. In the past there were times when I worry too much about what other people may think but I have a life to live and I’m going to do whatever makes me happy. You cannot please them all.

  58. Great post and great thread of input. I think in order to be “wrong” one has be have a fair degree of bravery in one’s heart:

    A hero is no braver than an ordinary man, but he is brave five minutes longer.

    –Ralph Waldo Emerson

  59. I agree. I’ve had more success being “wrong” on my own, freelancing and self promoting my quirky little self than I ever did going to interviews and trying to tell that co. why I’d fit its mold.

  60. Love it. Wouldn’t even call it being wrong, more like setting the standard. Those with the courage to blaze a trail for others are few and far between.

  61. I’d argue that it isn’t necessarily a case of being right, wrong or simply different to everyone else.

  62. Great post. Being right mattered in the third grade when it meant knowing what answer the teacher wanted. Being right can still be important in some situations, like measuring radiation leakage from a reactor. But a lot of what we call “getting it right” means “winning the argument” and that’s very often not a good thing at all.

  63. I like to think of it as wrong is the new right (or right is the new wrong). Wrong/right, old/new, leader/follower, whatever you want to call it, innovators (the REAL doers) are always up against this. I think creatives are always ups against this, especially in the corporate world. It’s often an uphill battle, but it’s so important to stand your ground when you know you are right even when you are surrounded by everyone saying you’re wrong because there’s not enough data to back up what you are saying. Nothing changes without innovation and innovation can’t happen without a few brave souls who have natural intuition and the courage to do things that haven’t been proven first.

  64. Our individuality is God differentiating Himself. Be true to yourself and you can never go wrong, no matter what others think, say, or do in response to you being you.

  65. Oh, I LOVE this. Justification is GOOD, LOL! It’s funny tho… I’ve spent all my life making people squirm and question my, err… “outlook on life,” and now that I do it in a blog, I find people who LIKE to squirm and AGREE WITH ME. Go figure.

  66. I’ll say “thank you” for this just like I hope, at the risk of sounding arrogant, that people will say “thank you” to me one day, too.

  67. “Thank you Grete.”

    (I bet that was quicker than you expected, Grete.)

  68. Thank you for writing this post. It is far too often that people, groups, and cultures abuse the notion of being “right” to keep individuals in the pool of average, mediocrity. If we all keep following the rules, we can all be comfortable being right, and never shine a light on the truth that life is being wasted.

  69. Failing is one of the biggest parts of our life and learning to do it the right way, means going on the path of success.

  70. I liked this post. It’s far too easy to hold back when you know what you believe or feel is contrary to the opinions of others. I’m a pro-immigration blogger and writing about immigration from my perspective is almost always bound to anger others. Yet, I feel my position is right, so I share it. Thanks for the intellectual support!