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Sometimes Being Wrong Can Be More Valuable Than Being Right

2014 November 23
by Greg Satell

Alexandre Dumas is thought to be the first person who said that “nothing succeeds like success.” Yet hard to know who really said it first.  It’s one of those aphorisms that seems so obviously true and it’s been repeated so often, by so many, that it’s become almost an integral part of the lexicon.

Failure, on the other hand, is the mark of a loser.  Nobody brags to friends, “my son dropped out of college today,” or “my 6th startup went bust!.”  Failure is something that you are supposed to crawl away from, try to forget and do your best to avoid next time around.

Nevertheless, not everyone treats failure that way.  Thomas Edison, when asked about his many unsuccessful attempts to create the light bulb, insisted that he never failed, he just found 10,000 things that didn’t work.  The truth is that some of the most important ideas get uncovered that way, when something we thought was right ends up being very much wrong.

The Destruction Of Logic

In the history of the world, very few ideas have rivaled the impact Aristotle’s logic.  In terms of longevity, only Euclid’s geometry is in the same league.  While there was healthy philosophical discussion before Aristotle, it was he that took it out of the realm of mysticism by creating a system to evaluate the internal consistency of particular statements.

Aristotle’s logical system became the foundation for western thought and survived nearly 2000 years without any significant alteration or amendment.  However, in late 19th century Cantor and Frege noticed some problems and tried to patch them up. Then Bertrand Russell showed that the hole was deeper and more fundamental than anyone had imagined.

Before long, logic was in a full-scale crises and David Hilbert, one of the most influential minds of the time, created a program—a concrete set of problems to be solved—that would set it right.  Unfortunately, the effort failed.  First, came Kurt Gödel and his incompleteness theorems, then Alan Turing and incomputable numbers.  Logic was dead for good.

Yet then a strange thing happened.  While the Gödel and Turing showed that logic was no longer absolute or infallible, its flaws were manageable and the systems they created in its place made the information age possible.  Out of the rubble of Aristotle’s logic, a new world was born.

The Laws Of Motion Come To A Screeching Halt

What Aristotle did for thought, Isaac Newton did for the physical world.  His mechanics described how, given some basic information about a object, we can predict where it will go, how fast it will get there and what effect it will have on other objects it encounters.  Even today, most of the physical objects we engineer still owe a great debt to Newton’s laws.

Yet while Newton’s laws described what we see and feel everyday, Albert Einstein showed that there is much more to the universe than what meets the eye.  In one miracle year, he demonstrated that classical mechanics only work because we live in a special case, where things where things don’t move too fast and are neither very big nor very small.

In effect, while Newton explained the concrete, Einstein showed us that there is a visceral abstract—things that appear to have no relevance in our everyday lives but affect us greatly nonetheless.  Without Einstein, modern life would be impossible.  There would be no nuclear power, no lasers, no iPods or iPhones.

Playing Dice With The Universe

In the late 1920’s, Einstein and Bohr were engaged in a series of famous debates about the future of physics in which Einstein insisted that “God does not play dice with the universe.”“Einstein, stop telling God what to do,”  Bohr retorted.  Einstein lost the argument and was so ticked off that he squandered the rest of his career trying to prove himself right.

At issue was the new field of quantum mechanics that Einstein’s discoveries had brought about.  However, he objected to the idea that matter was, in fact, was a series of probabilities. So Einstein proposed an experiment, dubbed the EPR paradox, which he felt would prove his point.

The basic idea was that if Bohr was right, then particles could become entangled, allowing us to teleport matter and energy and violate the known laws of physics.  In 1993, the experiment was successfully carried out at IBM labs when researchers teleported photons a short distance.  More recently, Japanese scientists teleported photons 300 kilometers (186 miles).

Einstein’s failure is just beginning to bear fruit, but over the next decade, as the present computing paradigm reaches its limits, it will unleash a new wave of technology and innovation, including quantum computers that are thousands of times faster than what we have today, unbreakable quantum encryption and even a quantum internet.

Creative Destruction

There has probably never been an idea that failed so spectacularly as Marx’s.  Despite his own objections, his followers went on to subjugate a large proportion of the planet to oppression and poverty.  Unfortunately, few can learn from Marx’s mistake because it’s so often been misportrayed.

The core of his idea was not equality, but that capitalism as it was stated at the time, suffered from an internal contradiction.  Namely that if supply and demand are in balance, then profits cannot exist.  Therefore, the only way to make money is to engage in rent seeking behavior by rigging the system.

That’s actually a very insightful point (Peter Thiel argued essentially the same thing recently). Managers do not and should not seek out competition, they are supposed to create advantage.  That’s what made Marx’s ideas so dangerous, he pointed out a problem that nobody had a solution for.

Yet still, he had it wrong and in the 1950’s Joseph Schumpeter showed why.  Entrepreneurs engaged in creative disruption keep the system humming along, so as long as we have innovation, there is no contradiction.  We do have rent seeking, such as car dealers lobbying against Tesla, which is a problem, but not an insurmountable one.

In the process, we learned something important.  It’s not business per se that creates value, but innovation.

The Power Of Big Problems

Nobody likes to be wrong.  It is even worse to lose an argument in front of your peers as Einstein did.  Yet if you try to do big, hard things, you’re chances of failure increase exponentially.  That just comes with the territory.  What make truly great minds different is that they approach their work with a particular brand of tenacity.

Einstein spent ten years thinking about special relativity and ten more on his general theory. He searched in vain for a unified theory for decades, to no avail.  He attacked problems with incredible grit, but still his monumental debates with Bohr were honest searches for the truth, rather than mendacious contests of sophistry.

There is a right way to be wrong.  As Richard Feynman put it, “the idea is to try to give all the information to help others to judge the value of your contribution; not just the information that leads to judgment in one particular direction or another.”  Many of today’s pundits and polemicists, however, do exactly the opposite.

We tend to separate success and failure into two separate categories, but actually they are very much intertwined.  When you look deeper into stories of fantastic success, you often find stories of earlier hardship and privation.  At the same time, we often see the high and mighty brought low by the effort to cover up a small blunder.

In truth, it is not success that succeeds, but failure that is overcome.

– Greg


17 Responses leave one →
  1. November 23, 2014

    Yes indeed, usually little success without a lot of failure too.

  2. November 23, 2014

    Unfortunately, people learn by pain e.g. the pain of failure. Entrepreneurs are the classic example. Most entrepreneurs are techies – experts at their technology, but not at starting and running a business. Consequently, they have a series of financially painful experiences that could be avoided if they took the time to develop a business plan before they began their venture. Even something as simple as doing a break-even analysis would be a worthwhile education unto itself. There is an old business and personal maxim: nobody plans to fail…they just fail to plan !

  3. November 23, 2014

    Greg – as always an interesting read.

    I will not quibble about what gives value – just to say that a service of any kind that satisfies a need gioves value to me.

    Nut I love this quote from your essay:

    “There is a right way to be wrong. As Richard Feynman put it, “the idea is to try to give all the information to help others to judge the value of your contribution; not just the information that leads to judgment in one particular direction or another.” Many of today’s pundits and polemicists, however, do exactly the opposite.”

    I will do my best to ensure that I live up to that standard.

    I have re-written a few things with that in mind already – and because I agree with you 100%.

    Incidentally there is history i the making – my ideas for money creation have become centre stage. I have a record of saying what it is all about on video boing back to 2008 and it is now online as a YouTube Video.

    Then another grou came up with the same solution – the Positive Money Group.

    The UK Parliament debated that on Thuday just passed. They seem headed to agree as well.

    It is only part 2 of my three part solution for economies but at least it is ‘verified’ on the platform o researches and opinion.

    Do you want the links?

    History is being written here.


  4. November 23, 2014

    More than most of us would probably like to admit too:-)

  5. November 23, 2014

    Thanks Edward. I always look forward to your thoughts.


  6. November 23, 2014

    I’m an ardent student of your “blog”. This is one of the best postings I’ve read. A reminder that we never know all of what we don’t know.

  7. November 23, 2014

    Gregg you have earned a quote on the first page of my book

  8. November 23, 2014

    Thanks you Judith. That’s great to hear!

    – Greg

  9. Jerry Kew permalink
    November 23, 2014

    on my office wall I have a little quote of my own.

    “We like mistakes, but they must be nice fresh ones”


  10. Norm Quesnel permalink
    November 24, 2014

    Needs some proofreading but a very interesting read for a Monday morning. Thank you very much

  11. November 24, 2014

    Please let me know of any mistakes you see so I can correct them.

    – Greg

  12. November 24, 2014


  13. jean-louis permalink
    November 26, 2014

    Hello Greg, indeed advice from someone who is wrong 100% of the time is of better value than the advice of someone who is right 75% of the time, or 80% even 90% (theoretical case when decisions are either or).

    the value is in “systematic”.

  14. November 26, 2014

    Interesting concept. Thanks for sharing Jean-Louis.

    – Greg

  15. November 26, 2014

    Great article! It seems that slowly but surely a lot of people are starting to understanding the value of failure and how important it is for development. If only the education systems of the world would take heed.

  16. nakayama permalink
    February 12, 2015

    Light speed is not Constant (to observer) !!

    All that we receive with our eyes are the facts of the past (unchangeable). Wavelength of incident light is coming from the past. On incident light, a formula c = λ f stands up. And λ is unchangeable (by our motion). Terms f and c change.

    Sorry, I can’t receive E-mail. I don’t have PC.

  17. February 14, 2015

    Thanks for sharing.

    – Greg

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