Will You Get it Wrong?
If wrong was a flavor of gum, I’d have stuck it ABC style under my desk chair long ago, hoping nobody caught me. I wouldn’t want you to know it was ever in my mouth.
But this week, wrong caught up with me.
And me? Put on Jeopardy, even on my best day in my best thinking cap and with a high dose of caffeine in my blood, I would still lose by a wide margin.
So when I went into said colleagues’ office, and Ne whirled around to ask, “Can you name five countries that have four letters?” I said “Nope!” before I even fully heard his challenge.
Ni leaned forward in her chair, “C’mon, you’re not even going to try?”
I had dizzy visions of failing geography tests in high school; of my art history teacher asking us to draw a free-form map of the United States and being able to come up with only NY, CA, and FL locations.
“Nope!” I said, confidently.
“Educator much?” asked Ne, who is always ribbing people just a little.
I stood there, nailed.
And stood there. My mind was completely blank. I probably couldn’t have told you my zip code, my middle initial, the last 4 digits of my social.
Mental snow fell.
This was what it felt like in third grade when I was asked to do the 7’s on the multiplication table. I remembered 7 and 49 and not much else. Ears red.
“Not even one?” Ni prodded.
“Um…ok, Peru?” I tried.
“Peru!” Ni said. “Yes!”
“Ah….Mali?” I offered.
OK, this wasn’t so hard. I knew some countries. I felt my shoulders relax. Now that I’d gotten two I needed to try for at least three, more than half the challenge met.
“Mali!” Ne echoed, glad.
“Bali!” I declared.
Ne and Ni nodded in unison. Wait, was I perhaps even GOOD at this? I had passed the halfway mark. Now it would be super-lame if I couldn’t finish the list. I’d traveled a lot in my life. Why were most of the places I’d been multisyllabic, or at least five letters? France, Spain, Turkey, you are no help to me.
We finished the list together: Iran, Iraq. Why those countries hadn’t been foremost in my mind, given the war zones and nuclear tensions of the last decades, I dunno.
What’s so scary about being wrong?
When I thought about this later, I realized a few key things:
- I knew my colleagues were savvy, and figured that in my area of weakness, I was about to look super dumb.
- Instead of trying, relaxing and opening my mind for the best shot at trivia, I did the opposite.
- Refusing to participate was a way of keeping myself safe from their judgment.
- It was better to say nothing than reveal holes in my knowledge. I would not show my ignorance.
- I somehow thought their estimation of me hinged on my ability to produce answers, instead of on my willingness to attempt.
- “Saving face” is not just an ethos in Asian countries. Apparently, it was part of my ego structure.
I am a teacher. I constantly tell students, just try, don’t say “I don’t know,” see what you MIGHT know, risk being wrong.
But there, in a very low-stakes environment, I was doing just the opposite. I did not want to “be wrong”; I did not want to not know; I did not want to look like an ignorant ass-hat. Better to say nothing at all.
So why was I telling my students to do what was apparently too hard for me?
In the safest of safe zones, with nothing riding on the answer, I was not willing to look like I didn’t have geography at the tip of my tongue.
A new way to be wrong
I entered my classroom the next day humbled and empowered. There were many
fucking countries with four letters, and I definitely knew some of them. And if I didn’t, I’d learn. And the trivia would have tickled my tender self-image until it writhed, and rose to the task.
Like me, my students sometimes wouldn’t have an answer. Sometimes, they wouldn’t want to admit it.
But they had to feel there was nothing wrong with trying anyway– and it was my job to model that.
I am looking forward to the next time Ne and Ni ask me trivia. The more my brain strains, the better.
Are you afraid to be wrong, too?
Let’s make our fears productive.
Prompts; Write about a time you didn’t want to look bad, or tried to avoid saying “I don’t know.”
OR write about a time you got caught in your own ignorance, being wrong.
OR contact us for a customized prompt.
See, we can always grow our self-awareness. It’s never over. And if we only stay in our comfort zone, we won’t learn a lick.