Why History's Greatest Minds Accept Being Wrong

“A fool doth think himself wise. But a wise man knows himself to be a fool.” – William Shakespeare

In 1846, Vienna General Hospital had a crisis – 1 in 6 women were dying of childbed fever. [1]

Every day, women giving birth were dying at such a rapid rate that many were choosing to take the risk of giving birth at home rather than going to the hospital.  This practice was unheard of since the middle-ages – especially in a large city hospital like Vienna General.

The doctors in the hospital were completely baffled by what was causing the disease. Many had theories such as the poor diets of women in Vienna and problems the ventilation ducts in the department. But one doctor had a completely radical idea of what might be causing the disease. He noticed that the rate of mothers dying was much lower when the baby was delivered by a mid-wife rather than a doctor.

Looking further into the matter, he noticed that all of the doctors that were involved in the birthing process were also doing separate research on dead bodies. Without sanitizing their materials, without using gloves and even without washing their hands, these doctors would go directly from surgical research on cadavers to delivering babies. Bringing all of the diseases with them.

So it turned out that the doctors themselves were the problem! By unknowingly transporting the diseases that killed the cadavers, they were killing the expected mothers! 

This finding was made by a doctor named Ignaz Semmelweis and was one of the first contributions to our modern-day germ theory. When he made this discovery, he immediately began requiring that doctors wash their hands before and after performing medical procedures. This practice saved countless lives within his department, but it was not adopted hospital-wide.

His superior would not accept Semmelweis’ theory. He simply could not fathom the fact that doctors were the ones that were killing their patients. He did not want to face the negative press in his hospital and deal with the guilt that would come from knowing that his leadership led to so many deaths.  

So he ignored Semmelweis, attributed the disease to the ventilation system and refused to adopt the new hand washing procedures throughout the hospital. Which, of course, led to more deaths and no progress. 

NEGATIVE CAPABILITY

The Vienna General Hospital story is a perfect example of the consequences that can occur when we refuse to accept opposing ideas to our own. Accepting the fact that we are wrong is painful. It hurts to admit that the ideas we have held on to for years or decades could be false. So we stop looking at opposing arguments to our deeply entrenched beliefs and look for every reason to tune them out.

Though this mentality may not literally kill people as it did at Vienna General, it is still dangerous. No matter how far we have come and how much we have learned, there is always new information popping up.  

Today we laugh at ideas such as the world being flat, the universe revolving around the earth, or doctors not knowing about germs. But there are countless facts we believe today that people in the 22nd century will laugh at in the same way.  

The smartest minds throughout history have understood this fact. Rather than trying their best to hold on to every idea in their current belief system, they are constantly evolving it. They are not stubborn about what they think they know; they are always looking for new information that will completely disrupt even their most deeply entrenched ideas.

Opening your mind in this way is a process known as cultivating a negative capability and it requires a lot of our willpower to develop. 

WHY CULTIVATING NEGATIVE CAPABILITY IS SO HARD

The brain is wired to conserve energy. So it naturally wants to believe that it has learned all that it needs to know. It requires much less mental energy to assume that we know everything about a domain than to continually be curious about it. [2]

Therefore it requires that we use our willpower to push further. It requires that we have the perseverance to investigate the details that others are not willing to. It requires the discipline to hear opposing arguments with an open mind, rather than one that is shut off. 

Make no mistake about it, opening up your mind to new ideas is not easy. It was not easy for Semmelweis and his colleagues to admit to themselves that they were responsible for hundreds of deaths. But the knowledge they acquired was well worth the price. 

The pain of admitting that you are wrong and changing your beliefs will never be as great as the pain of sticking your head in the sand – wasting weeks, months or years continuing down the wrong path.

HOW TO CULTIVATE A NEGATIVE CAPABILITY

Although it will be a lifelong struggle to cultivate a negative capability, there are several proven tactics that we can use to train our minds to become more open.

1.    DETACH YOUR EGO FROM YOUR IDEAS

We have a natural tendency to attach ourselves to our ideas. We believe that they represent our character, intelligence and values. So when they are challenged, we do not feel as if the idea is being challenged, but our own character.

In order to cultivate a negative capability, we must learn to detach ourselves from this. 10 years ago, you may have not have held the same ideas that you do now. Would you consider yourself 10 years ago as less of a person of character because of that? Of course not. You simply had less experience and a different perspective than you do today. 

We must be open to learning, growing and constantly changing our ideas and beliefs. The only way we can do this is by recognizing that our current ideas do not define who we are. They are merely the best understanding of our world at the current time. If we can learn to detach our ego from our beliefs, we will be much more open to new and better ideas that come across our path. [3]

2.    LET GO OF YOUR NEED TO JUDGE 

We all have an ideal world that is based on our own belief system. So when we spend our time walking around, watching TV or observing our others' behavior, we judge everything we see against our own ideal of how we believe things should be.

For better or worse, we judge people we see on their attractiveness, their communication, or their intelligence based on our own ideals. Every time you do this, you are training the brain to become more close-minded. You are reinforcing your current belief system and not allowing yourself to see another person’s perspective.

To overcome this tendency, you must identify the situations where you begin to judge others. Simply by recognizing the situation, you can begin to try to see things from the other person’s point of view. This trains the mind to become more open to new ideas, perspectives and beliefs – helping you cultivate a negative capability. [4]

3. SEEK OUT THE UNFAMILIAR

When it comes to belief systems, we have a horrible tendency to have an “us vs. them” mentality. Whether those beliefs are about religion, politics, or life values; we despise the opposing arguments so much that we do not even seek to understand them. And even if we do hear them out, we approach them with a closed mind; simply looking for the flaws in their thinking. 

The more we engage in this practice, the more we will close ourselves off to other unfamiliar ideas as well. If you train your mind to be closed in the matter of politics, you will unknowingly be more set in your beliefs about relationships, science and religion as well.

You must avoid this trap at all costs. To do so, you must start seeking out unfamiliar knowledge with an open mind. Read books from those with different views than you. Tune in to a news station known to hold opposing political views than you. Even if you do not believe what they have to say, simply by being open to learning, you will train your brain to become more open to all new ideas. [3]

4. BECOME MORE MINDFUL OF YOUR DECISIONS  

We tend to believe that every choice we make throughout the day goes through a process of well-informed decision-making. But 45% of our daily-decision are made completely automatically. What we decide to eat, what we decide to wear and what we decide to do when we first get to work, are all made by our brains are running on autopilot.

These automatic choices are formed with the same part of the brain that wants to tune out opposing ideas. By consistently running on autopilot, you are essentially being close-minded in your daily decision-making. This trains the brain to become close-minded in its higher thinking as well. [4]

You can overcome this tendency by becoming more mindful of your daily decisions. This is as simple as pausing to question why you are making the decision to get coffee as soon as you make it into the office; or why you are eating cereal for breakfast rather than eggs. Simply questioning these daily decisions will train your mind to be more open to other ideas as well. You do not need to change your behavior, you just need to question it. 

USE NEGATIVE CAPABILITY AS AN EXERCISE

Despite its value, it is important to understand that you should not always be in a state of negative capability. Being in a constant state of questioning is no better than being in a constant state of close-mindedness. Eventually, you will have to shape your ideas and come to conclusions based on the information at your disposal. So do not seek to constantly consider yourself wrong.

Instead, embrace negative capability as an exercise. Physical activity is important for maintaining your health, but you do not want to be in a constant state of physical activity. Meditation is important for your productivity and focus, but you do not want to be in a state of constant meditation. The same theory applies for negative capability.

Being open to new ideas is extremely important. Use the exercises listed above to train your mind to embrace new perspectives, beliefs and values. This will allow you to become more intelligent and less judgmental. But use the new ideas you learn to continually build upon what you know to create your own theories.  

CONCLUSION

Opening your mind to the idea that you are wrong is one of the hardest things you can do. It goes against our nature and requires us to feel vulnerable and ashamed. But the consequences of not admitting our mistakes are far worse. We can look to the doctors at Vienna General Hospital to see just how dangerous it is to ignore opposing ideas.

Becoming open minded is not easy, but it can be done. It requires conscious attention and training. Just like we must train our bodies to be fit, we must train our minds to be open. So begin practicing detaching your ego from your ideas, recognizing your judgements, seeking out the unfamiliar and simply becoming more mindful in your daily life. Over time, you will cultivate a negative capability, and open your mind to ideas that just might shape a new and better world around you. 

Sources:

  1. Carter, C & Carter, B. (2005), Childbed fever. A scientific biography of Ignaz Semmelweis, Transaction Publishers
  2. Sylwester, R. (2005, March 11). The Role of Snap Judgments in Intelligence: An Intriguing Perspective - Brain Connection. http://brainconnection.brainhq.com/2005/03/11/the-role-of-snap-judgments-in-intelligence-an-intriguing-perspective/
  3. Greene, R. (2012). Mastery. New York: Viking.
  4. Kahneman, D. (2011). Thinking, fast and slow. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
  5. Duhigg, C. (2012). The power of habit: Why we do what we do in life and business. New York: Random House.

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