When I was in college I smacked my head on the same tree branch three times within a single month. A year later, during a particularly hectic period, two glass doors each acquired a decent print of my face. I am delighted to report that my head has not come into contact with a tree or glass pane for at least three years and counting. However, pushing when I should pull (and vice versa) remains a completely separate story.
My mistakes extend into the classroom. In a first-year literature arts class, I forgot the name of the author whose book I wrote an essay on. During a packed computer science lecture, I asked what a CPU does. While taking my qualifying exam, an exam that marked my entrance into PhD studies, I misattributed a pivotal study to the wrong research group. Finally, if you ever take a class with me, you’ll quickly realize that my favorite sentence during lecture is “I don’t understand.” I repeat it often, so much so that some professors use me asking it as a measure of the general classroom’s understanding.
I relay those stories to the undergraduates I teach every year for two reasons. First, doing so makes me less of an authority figure and more of a peer who can help them learn a bit about neuroscience. Such a dynamic is important for lively, relevant discussion. Second, it highlights how people can be productive MIT graduate students despite a penchant toward ignorance, either of surroundings or of knowledge.
That second reason is in response to a phenomenon I’ve observed. Too many students I know are frozen by the fear of being wrong. Most times it isn’t just the fear of being ignorant, but the perception of being ignorant. The worst thing in class isn’t doing poorly on a test; it’s having others know about it. Ignorance-phobia: the deadliest sin.
That fear extends beyond undergraduates. I see it in graduate students, post-doctoral scholars, even in people far-removed from the relative comfort of academia. I’m sure you, reader, can name people like this. You may even be one yourself. I wish to converse with those worried about the letter “I” being emblazoned upon them.
It is okay to be wrong.
To be human is to err.
Even MIT graduate students, like pigeons, run into glass doors sometimes.
Most important, every time I admitted I was wrong, I learned something. This simple cause-and-effect relationship isn’t just academic. I’ve gained friends by asking how a mathematical proof worked (turns out neither of us knew). I’ve strengthened relationships by learning from friends about their hobbies. I’ve grown into what might pass as a decent human being by admitting personal faults. Point being, after every display of ignorance, I grew either personally or intellectually. I took one more nibble from fruits on the tree of knowledge.
My advice, if you are kind enough to listen, is this: eat. Sate your voracious appetite for knowledge. Take solace in the idea knowledge inevitably comes with mistakes.
I wish I could also say that you shouldn’t worry about what others think. Unfortunately, that advice is dishonest. I lived such a life for quite some time. I have the burned bridges to prove it. To eschew others’ thoughts is to reject the idea that others’ thoughts matter.
Instead, I suggest a compromise. In theory, the only person you are ever competing with is yourself. Care about the opinions of those who acknowledge that and encourage you to constantly improve. It is good, necessary even, to be ignorant around these people. Let them help you learn.
So every morning, I strap on a helmet and run head first into a forest. I have a mantra: I’m better than I was yesterday and worse than I’ll be tomorrow. I owe it to my future self to be wrong.