Tiny Spark Series: The Art of Being Wrong

   Upon finding the blog A.Hab.’s View I realized that I’m not that smart and also despite our varying aptitudes we are all on a constant course of growth (some, like me, stubborn and slower than the rest). At the time, Amanda was a brilliant student. She stayed brilliant, graciously shared her smarts with us peanuts in the comment gallery, but has also become Mama Hab to a precious baby and, most recently, Doctor Hab after a mind-smacking and educational journey.

    When she so sweetly contributed to the Tiny Spark Series I was shocked and delighted at her message. I hope it’s one you’ll see so clearly beyond the walls of academia, way past the black & white of words. I hope you’ll see this quirky light right in the cozy chaos of your home, maybe yourself. Today’s Tiny Spark reminds us- as fumbling parents and good Bad Christians, as friends and just overall humans- that in a world where Rightness is much praised and promoted, that old underdog Wrong is worth something, too.



The Freedom to be Wrong

I’m a Virgo. Let me be more specific. I’m a Type A Virgo. I was fortunately spared obsessive-compulsive levels of perfection-seeking behavior; however, the desire not just to aspire toward perfection but to reach it is in my marrow.
In addition to wanting to be perfect came, I believe hand-in-glove, the overwhelming desire to be right. Being right might actually have been my career motivation—as a professor, I have the ability, nay, responsibility to be right in front of a room full of people on a daily basis. I struggle in situations when my “rightness” is called into question, immediately preparing multiple lines of defenses to levy against potential detractors.

And then I had my doctoral defense. For the unwashed (read: lucky ones), a doctoral defense is one of the final hoops a doctoral candidate must jump through on the road to graduation. The candidate spends years researching and writing a lengthy dissertation that hopefully contributes something to the scholarship of the candidate’s chosen field. Once the document has been written, a committee of important professors (selected by the candidate, in most cases) will read the document and make comments for revision. After the document has been revised to the satisfaction of the committee (note: not the candidate), the committee convenes with the candidate in an official meeting where the professors will ask the candidate such questions as “why did you write this dissertation in the first place?” This examination can take upwards of two hours, depending entirely on the whims of the committee.

Three of my favorite (and most challenging) professors and a fourth mystery professor comprised my committee. While my favorite professors were from my department and were familiar with me as a student, the mystery professor came from an outside department and represented the university graduate school. Having an “outside reader” is a requirement of my university in order to prevent individual departments from allowing candidates to “slip by” without meeting the rigorous requirements of the university as a whole. My outside reader took her responsibilities seriously, and for that I am grateful.

In addition to grilling me in unexpected ways, she also taught me the valuable lesson on being wrong.

I am a graduate of three English degrees and programs, specializing in the Renaissance (early modern) period. She is a graduate of three history degrees and programs, specializing in the English Renaissance (early modern) period. Although the departments often intersect seamlessly, my doctoral defense demonstrated the areas where these two courses of study chafe against one another.

“You seem to ignore accepted historical facts, and make no mention of whether your primary texts were available in English translation or when, not to mention the historical and cultural climate that existed when these sources were translated in English.”

I stared at her. Was she for real? Was she suggesting that all early modern English readers had to read in English? A flame ignited somewhere deep in my belly—indignant and a bit offended on behalf of those English readers, I smiled and made a note of her remark on my notepad.

“I take your point,” I replied. “However, there is sufficient evidence to suggest that the ideas of these non-English writers would have been somewhat familiar to some early modern English readers.”

“I am not suggesting that English readers were so insular as not to be able to read in French, so do not misunderstand me. I just think you should have made mention of the fact.”

She was right. And I was wrong. My heart began to pound, and my hands felt clammy. Fears rushed to the fore of my mind—this woman in her rightness would prevent me (in my wrongness) from graduating. All of this work, all of this time…for nothing. I would fail my doctoral defense. It was over.

And then that tiny flame in my belly burst wide and consumed me.

I was wrong.

I was wrong, but I would not fail. Would not die. Would not lose the respect of my family, friends, students, and colleagues.

I felt my back straighten, my chin raise, my heart rate slow.

Suddenly, it was okay to be wrong. In the past, wrongness meant ignorance or losing. It meant that someone else was more perfect than I was. In the past, wrongness had to be corrected. And being right was so much work.

Later that day, after I shook the hands of my committee members (and hugged my committee director), after they called me “Doctor” for the first time, after I shared the news with my anxious family and friends…later that day, my husband asked me if it had sunk in yet, if my accomplishment had hit me. I told him that it hadn’t, that I was just relieved to be finished.

But I was working on something greater than the achievement of completing my terminal degree program.

Finally, after 31 years of working so hard to be right, wrongness smacked me in the face and woke me up.

I was finally free to be wrong.


When have you “failed” wonderfully?

Have you found yourself happily wrong?


Upcoming Tiny Spark:

Deborah Bryan

Friday, January 4th



30 thoughts on “Tiny Spark Series: The Art of Being Wrong

  1. I remember my orals for my MA in religious studies at Barry University in 1980 in Miami Shores, Florida. ( I deserved a doctorate in my opinion). My paper was “The Massachusetts Bay Puritans (1630-1670) and the doctrinal disputes that divided them amicably into Presbyterians or Congregationalists”. I was a Presbyterian at Catholic university but my professor allowed this in an effort to learn about my own religious tradition as the coursework took care of the rest.There was no internet then and I was restricted by the availability of a dozen and a half books as Miami had no vast archives like Ivy League schools. I did well on answering matters about my paper but the rest of it went horribly. I just did not understand what I was being asked in some questions. The glances among the committee and raised eyebrows seemed to indicate my failure. The final question was “What have I truly learned at Barry ?” Two and a half years of study – how do you answer that ? First I presented that I learned how much I did not know in the field of theology as my degree work had barely scratched the surface. That went over VERY well. Second, I related that I learned the meaning of scholarship (not my own studies in particular) and the meaning of commitment to Christ. I used the example of the Rev. John Eliot who from about 1630 to 1640 translated the entire oral language of the Narragansett Indians into written phonetic words and then created an English/ Narragansett dictionary and grammar lexicon. In the next 10 years he hand wrote the Bib;e in the Indian language and in 1650 the Massachusetts General Assembly funded that a printing press from England be secured and copies came out in printed editions. Only a few hundred Indians learned to read or were converted and fewer were considered “practicing” but he continued to preach with purpose. THAT was scholarship and THAT was commitment to giving testimony to Jesus. I got the A.

    1. Carl, thank you for reading! I think the oral exam/defense process is just designed to be absolutely horrible and quite possibly debasing. It sounds like you deserved that A! My Master’s defense sounds similar to yours–my thesis was on anti-Catholic polemic in a little-read early modern English prose piece. One of my professors sat across the table from me at my defense and said, “I don’t think you know the history of Catholicism in England. Tell me what you know.” I remember feeling ambushed and utterly shocked–nothing in the semester leading up to the defense prepared me for that question (certainly it should have come up, oh, months before, right?). But reading your experience, coupled with my doctoral defense, just reinforces to me the conclusion that the defense/oral examination is code for university-sanctioned academic hazing. 😉

    2. I probably should’ve known I would LOVE your answers to those questions. I like a person who can say “I’m smart, but I still have a whole lot to learn”. It’s honest above everything else 🙂

  2. Oh fuck. So are you saying that if I just get my Ph.D, then my desire to be perfect will all make sense? And I’ll have the same leverage as my M.D. wielding husband? And we’ll be equal so he’ll stop remaining me about my wrongness all the time? I might have to reenroll.

    Congratulations in your Ph.D. But you can’t shit this professor.

    You don’t cure Type A desire to be perfect with a degree. I should know. I’m a Type A+ Scorpio still working on letting things roll off her back.


    You did write a lovely piece all wrapped up in a perfect little bow. You should be pleased. It’s gorgeous.

    1. Haha, obviously that isn’t what I was saying at all. Not to worry–my Type A personality remains firmly intact. This little experience wasn’t enough to rewire my entire being. 😉 It did, however, offer an opportunity to help me see that being wrong isn’t the end of the world.

      Thanks for reading.

    2. Haha. Tom out-degree-ed me so I play the “But I’ve birthed a giant baby” card because it’s all I got. Needless to say our arguments get pretty weird and way off topic 🙂

  3. This is brilliant. I think this topic is worthy of discussion. I can also remember when I finally learned to accept being wrong. It was earth shattering. Not only did I accept it but I learned to embrace it and maybe even allowed my pendulum to swing far to the other side. Being able to admit when you’re wrong feels empowering, it’s the mark of a confident and secure person who grasps the notion that we can’t possibly KNOW everything all the time. Why does it take us so long to figure out such a simple lesson? I don’t know… but when it finally comes it’s liberating and so satisfying. Now I actually like being vulnerable with my wrongness, if only to see other people squirm and get uncomfortable – like I’m flashing them with my naked body! haha!

    1. That’s fantastic! I love the idea of being wrong as also being revealing–like we’re flashing our soft, gooey, vulnerable center. It is empowering, and sometimes I think it is useful for those around us to see that it’s okay to be wrong too. In a way, it can be both off-putting and simultaneously inviting!

      Thanks for reading!

    2. Hahaha. So you’re a spiritual streaker of sorts. Awesome analogy! I realized that I will feel worse, toss and turn and cringe more, if I know that I’ve been wrong or done wrong, so I reached a point where I will fess up to my giant pile of flaws before the other person has even noticed. Why sit around fighting it, right? People, like you said, are usually so put off by this, but in the end appreciate it. I think a lot of our problems in relationships and life stem from this general rule of Never Admit Defeat. We keep fights and wars and grudges because no one wants to bow out and say “Yeah, I messed up”. I much rather own my mistakes than spend the energy trying to hide them.

  4. I tried commenting on this post earlier in the morning, but my iPad ate it.

    The longest-lived draft in my “saved drafts” folder has to do with being wrong. It used to be that I would never, ever own up to. My last ex taught me the merits of seeing and stating that I was wrong. Indeed, I found I respect those who owned up to being wrong–without in any way seeing that as a diminishing thing–and was trusted more by those around me when I admitted I had (or might have) been.

    There are so many examples of my being glad to be wrong, but I suck at thinking any up on the fly. Well, I guess there is one that I think of almost every day: I thought motherhood was a consignment to doom, only to discover it’s now my greatest joy. So, definitely glad to be wrong there. 🙂

    1. Deborah, I’m so glad that you’re comfortable being wrong too! I have had to embrace it as a teacher in the past, but there was something more…more about being wrong in front of a future colleague who held the power to fail my dissertation. I think you’re onto something with the respect factor, too. Don’t we all appreciate the humanity (even the imperfections) in other people? And don’t we feel a particular kinship to people who are able to be wrong to our faces? I think, even more importantly, we respect ourselves when we can admit that we are wrong.

      Thanks for reading!

    2. That’s a BIG one! I love that you shared it because that’s something I still try to hide and not talk about. When I first had Thomas I would see the elated Facebook statuses of other new moms. They were all “overjoyed” to be up at 2 am. They all seemed like naturals. I lived those first few months sure that I was absolutely right in thinking that I wasn’t cut out for motherhood, that it didn’t feel natural or fun, more like a horror movie with a headache. Luckily the universe shifts, we get our sea legs and decide on some random day that we can do it.

  5. This is SO good, and captures the terror that lies just beneath the surface in academic life! I have a Ph.D. in the biomedical sciences (Anatomy and Cell Biology), and I don’t know whether it’s harder to be “right” in the sciences or in culltural disciplines. In dealing with students’ questions, one can say “I’m not sure,” or “there’s no concensus on that,” which lets you off the hook a bit.
    I’ve written a couple of short stories on the theme of the rather brutal culture of academic science. I could serialize one of them in my fiction blog ( http://vpascoefiction.blogspot.com/ ), if anyone’s interested.

    1. Oh my gosh, thank you, Joanne! And you’re right about being wrong in front of students. My first few semesters, I thought that I had to be the authority on absolutely everything. After a great deal of anxiety, I had to learn that it was okay to tell them, “I don’t know” or “I’ll look that up” or (better yet) “why don’t you look that up and tell us about it in the next class meeting?” I’ve had to correct myself in class, too, which is a humbling experience to be sure.

      Thanks for reading!

    2. Joanne, you and Amanda have brilliant brains that I envy. I was always so extremely hyper that the focus and commitment you two have for education is that much more impressive! Outside of the classroom, I struggle with being wrong without the crowd of students: in parenting (always), in friendships, with family.

  6. Thank you for this well-written reminder to embrace wrongness. I, like you, spent much of my life defending myself simply for the sake of being not-wrong. I didn’t have to be right necessarily… just not-wrong. Wrong was an evil four letter word. I’ll never forget the moment (in my late twenties!) when it clicked that being wrong wasn’t only inevitable but that it was also… okay.

    1. Jenny, you definitely get it. And it never was about being “right,” as you say–it was about being “not wrong.” What in the world was wrong with being wrong anyway? I’m like you–somewhere along the way, I was desperate just to be “not wrong.” Thank goodness we learned the lesson that it’s okay to be wrong! What a freeing feeling!

      Thanks for reading!

  7. Tori, thank you for your introduction of me. I feel so humbled to be included in this group of inspiring stories…maybe a bit out of place, but certainly humbled. Thank you for allowing me to include my story in your series. 🙂

    1. Dr. Girl, you are certainly not out of place. That’s what I love about your post. Every person’s version of a bad experience/ dark day is so completely different. While reading, I was nodding and cringing because (certainly not while working towards a academic gold) I’ve felt that same sting of being wrong and after trying for maybe my entire life to be right. I bet every person’s felt that in some way.

    1. Sure is! I had a few big events this year where the argument or tension was made a million times worse because people felt they couldn’t let go and be wrong. I have a hard time understanding because I’ve been wrong so much I learned to just accept it as no big deal. It’s a relief not to have to be the winner!

  8. I grew up with a dad who loved debate so much that he would choose the “wrong” side just to allow a debate to occur. I think that has helped me somewhat to be OK with being wrong, but at the same time, it has made it very difficult for me to accept “losing.” I’m all too happy to admit that I may have been wrong about something and evolve my views, but when my being wrong makes the point I was arguing completely invalid, I have a really hard time letting go of it, and I tend to make a slight arse of myself pressing the issue and trying to find a valid point in the shambles.

    I’ve also figured out that many people don’t enjoy the process of debate nearly as much as I do, so I’m still learning to let some things go rather than insist on being right. Better that I tense up my neck one time in annoyance at a poorly stated or factually errant argument than that I go round the bend a hundred times with someone who is just going to get angry at me.

    I think that’s a bit of a corollary to learning to be wrong, at least for me: learning how to be right without demanding that others recognize that fact. For someone who loves debating so much, half the fun of being right is having people acknowledge a well-made argument and come around to it (and half the fun of being wrong is learning new things from a beautifully-made argument), but sometimes there’s just no chance of someone acknowledging that, no matter how many carefully-arranged facts you have on your side, and I (still) have to learn to accept that even if facts may support me, it does not matter if other people do not necessarily do the same.

    1. Such an interesting perspective! I think learning to be right without announcing all our rightness is almost as hard as accepting “defeat”. Ask my husband as he’s experienced my very braggy rightness too many times!

  9. I never went beyond a BS (how truly appropriate for me), but I had my moment way back in high school. I’ve been a World War 2 buff since I could read – the first book I remember was a general history of WW2, and I did book reports on “30 Seconds Over Tokyo” while in 2nd, 3rd, and 4th grade (that’s another story). I wrote a paper for a high school social studies class, and was rather taken aback when I “only” got a B. I challenged the teacher, with whom I was friends, and he counter-challenged me to prove my facts. Yep – turned out I had made some assumptions that the facts didn’t bear out. He so motivated me that I rewrote the paper, even though my grade wouldn’t change, and learned from the experience to challenge my own assumptions, and that if I was going to stand on a fact, I had better be BLOODY sure that fact was correct! 🙂
    Nowadays, I know far too little about far too much to worry about degrees… 😉

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