Five hundred years ago cartographers believed California was an island. Doctors believed that slicing your arm open and bleeding everywhere could cure disease. Scientists believed fire was made out of something called phlogiston. Women believed rubbing dog urine on their face had anti-aging benefits. And astronomers believed the sun revolved around the earth.
When I was a little boy, I used to think “mediocre” was a kind of vegetable and that I didn’t want to eat it. I thought my brother had found a secret passageway in my grandma’s house because he could get outside without having to leave the bathroom (spoiler alert: there was a window). I also thought that when my friend and his family visited “Washington BC” they had somehow traveled back in time to when the dinosaurs lived, because after all, “BC” was a long time ago.
As a teenager, I used to try and not care about anything, when the truth was I actually cared way too much. I thought happiness was a destiny and not a choice. I thought love was something that just happened and not something that was worked for. I thought that being “cool” had to be practiced and learned from others rather than invented for oneself.
When I was with my first girlfriend, I thought she would never leave me. And then when she left me, I thought I’d never feel the same way about a woman again. And then when I felt the same way about a woman again, I thought that love sometimes just wasn’t enough. And then I realized that you get to decide what is “enough,” and love can be whatever you let it be for you, if you so choose.
Every step of the way I was wrong. About everything. All throughout my life, I was flat-out wrong about myself, others, society, culture, the world, the universe, everything. And I hope that will continue to be the case for the rest of my life.
Just as Present Mark can look back on Past Mark’s every flaw and mistake, one day Future Mark will look back on Present Mark’s assumptions and notice similar flaws. And that will be a good thing. Because that will mean I have grown.
There’s that famous Michael Jordan quote about failing over and over and over again, and that’s why he succeeds. Well, I am always wrong about everything, and that’s why my life improves.
Knowledge is an eternal iterative process. We don’t go from “wrong” to “right” once we discover the capital-T Truth. Rather, we go from partially wrong to slightly less wrong, to slightly less wrong than that, to even less wrong than that, and so on. We approach the capital-T truth, but never reach it.
Therefore, from a perspective of happiness/purpose, we should not seek to find the ultimate “right” answer for ourselves, but rather seek to chip away at the ways which we’re wrong today so that we’re a little less wrong tomorrow.
When looked at from this perspective, personal development can actually be quite scientific. The hypotheses are our beliefs. Our actions and behaviors are the experiments. The resulting internal emotions and thought patterns are our data. We can then take those and compare them to our original beliefs and then integrate them into our overall understanding of our needs and emotional make-up for the future.
This approach to personal development is superior because it relies on experience first and foremost, and then proper interpretation of experience through various belief systems second.
For example, let’s say you aspire to be a professional writer. You have assumptions you’ve made about yourself — you’re creative, you love to express yourself, people enjoy your writing, you would be happy writing every day, and so on. And now you want to pursue an end-goal of turning that into a profession.
I get tons of emails from people in this situation and they all ask the same question, “What should I do?”
The answer is easy. You write. A lot.
You test those beliefs out in the real world and get real-world feedback and emotional data from them. You may find that you, in fact, don’t enjoy writing every day as much as you thought you would. You may discover that you actually have a lot of trouble expressing some of your more exquisite thoughts than you first assumed. You realize that there’s a lot of failure and rejection involved in writing and that kind of takes the fun out of it. You also find that you spend more time on your site’s design and presentation than you do on the writing itself, that that is what you actually seem to be enjoying.
And so you integrate that new information and adjust your goals and behaviors accordingly.
This, in a nutshell, is called life. Or at least what life should be. But somewhere along the way we all became so obsessed with being “right” about our lives that we never end up living it.
We often say that people don’t take action because they’re afraid of failure. You’re single and lonely and want a boyfriend but you never get out of the house and do anything. Or you work your ass off and believe you deserve a promotion but you never confront your boss about it. The conventional wisdom about these situations is that you’re simply afraid of failure, of rejection, of someone saying “no.”
But it goes beyond that. Sure, rejection hurts. Failure sucks. But there are certainties we hold onto which we are afraid to question or let go of, certainties which meet our needs and give our lives meaning. That woman doesn’t get out there and date because she would be forced to confront her certainty of her own desirability and self-esteem. That man doesn’t ask for the promotion because he would have to confront his certainty about the value of his work and whether he’s actually productive or not.
These certainties are designed to give us moderate comfort now by mortgaging greater happiness later. They’re terrible long-term strategies. These are the certainties that keep us in place and out of touch. These are the certainties that drive people into despair, prejudice or radicalism.
Getting somewhere great in life has less to do with the ability to be right all the time and more to do with the ability to be wrong all the time. What are you wrong about today that can lead to your improvement?
So try it. Assume that you’re wrong — about everything. See where that takes you. Whatever you’re struggling with right now, practice some uncertainty. Ask yourself, “What if I was wrong about this?” Because I can tell you that you are. You are wrong about that and everything else too, just like me and just like everybody else.
And that’s good news.
Because being wrong means change. Being wrong means improvement. It means not cutting your arm open to cure a cold or splashing dog piss on your face to look young again. It means not thinking “mediocre” is a vegetable or being afraid to care.
In five hundred years, people will point and laugh at how we let our money and our jobs define our lives. They will laugh at how we were afraid to show appreciation for those who matter to us most. They will laugh at our rituals and superstitions, our worries and our wars. They will gawk at our cruelty. They will study our art and argue over our history. They will understand truths about us of which none of us are even aware of yet.
And we will have been wrong about pretty much everything. Just as they will be wrong about everything too, albeit a little less wrong.
And maybe, possibly — hopefully! — they will look back on our world and think, “Wow, how did they live like that?”
This article is an excerpt from my book, The Subtle Art of Not Giving a Fuck: A Counterintuitive Guide to Living A Good Life