headshot of George Dinwiddie with books he's written

iDIA Computing Newsletter

June 2022

Openness to the Opinions of Others

Imagine you're minding your own business, and a stranger comes up and tells you that you're all wrong.

"Don't buy those collard greens. Kale is much healthier. It's got more minerals. And it's got less vitamin K which might give you a stroke."

I don't know who that woman was, but she had very different meal-planning priorities than I did.

When such things happen, do you thank them for their point of view? Do you reflect on what they say you're doing wrong, questioning yourself, and possibly changing your beliefs and actions?

Probably not. Few of us are welcoming of such unsolicited feedback.

And yet it's likely that we are wrong, at least in some fashion and to some degree. I'm not saying that we should take the unsolicited feedback of strangers at face value, but neither should we hold tight to an image of our own infallibility.

It's very tempting to do so. Human beings like to be right. Or, more precisely, human beings like to feel that they're right. And as Kathryn Schulz points out in Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error, being wrong feels exactly the same as being right. It's only realizing that we're wrong that feels different.

Being wrong certainly brings a risk of making bad decisions. For that reason, it's reasonable to try to be as aligned with the "truth" as we can be. It's hard, though. Even philosophers have difficulty finding a firm foundation for truth that can be absolutely trusted.

Being wrong also brings us opportunity for new learning. If we're always right, there's little incentive to learn better. Realizing where we're wrong gives us guidance on where to learn more. That seems generally good for us and for our future decisions.

I think of another grocery shopping story from decades ago. I was walking to Lexington Market in Baltimore, and had stopped at an intersection for the light to change. The stranger stopped next to me asked me if I liked raw oysters.


"Oh, I love them! I was scared to eat them the first time, but now sometimes I just have to go down to Faidley's and order me a dozen."

The light changed, and we went on, separately, to Lexington Market. As I did my grocery shopping, I came to Faidley's Seafood stall. I thought, "How do I know I don't like oysters?" The truth is that I'd never tried oysters. I didn't know whether I liked them or not.

I ordered a half-dozen at the raw bar. And you know what? They were delicious! Fresh and sweet from the Chesapeake Bay.

Perhaps a stranger making unsolicited judgements isn't our favorite way of learning we're wrong, and perhaps it's not even a very effective way. The fact remains that we need external viewpoints because our own perception is so stuck in our own current beliefs. But we also can't depend on others making that happen. They're likely afraid of appearing to be a stranger with unsolicited advice. We need to seek them out.

Seeking out the opinions of others starts with questioning our beliefs and perceptions. First, you have to release your belief of being right. It's not as painful as it sounds. We're probably right enough, enough of the time, to get by pretty well up until now. We made it this far, didn't we? If we want to do better, we have to realize our imperfections.

Get as unstuck as you can on your own. Looking for contradicting or enhancing viewpoints is, itself, self-questioning. Your own question is the first step in that journey.

/signed/ George

P.S. Do you have a story when a stranger questioned your beliefs? Perhaps they didn't even realize they were doing so. Tell me about it. If you're willing to have that conversation with me, use my Discovery Session scheduling to set up a Zoom call to share ideas.

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Or you can also simply reply to this email or send an email to newsletter@idiacomputing.com to continue the conversation. There's a person, not a bot, on this end. I'd really love to hear from you.