I Will Not Always Be Right, and That's OK

I just thought I'd warn you. You might not like to hear this, but it's true. I'll probably be wrong at some point in the future, and I'm OK with that. I'm going to be wrong this year, but so will you, and so will each and every one of us on this planet. That's life. No one's always right. Here's how I've learned to live with being wrong, and how you can live with it, too.

To err is human
Most "expert predictions" are worth little more than a coin toss. Picking great stocks can be such a game of luck that several monkeys have made professional analysts look like chimps... er, chumps. We do, thankfully, have one huge advantage over those lucky apes -- the ability to learn. Sure, some gorillas know sign language, but try teaching them the difference between a 10-K and a 14A, to say nothing of how to interpret them. The human capacity for high-level abstraction sets us apart from other primates, and great investors make ample use of this ability to look at what might be instead of what is.

But even the savviest investor might only be right 60% of the time. Does that mean we should pack up our screens and hunker down with an index fund? Not necessarily. Neither should we wade into the market's morass without expecting to get a little messy from time to time. Learning to overcome our weaknesses can often be more powerful than learning to enhance our strengths.

To be biased is also human
Learning should be easy. After all, we've got the most powerful educational tool ever designed right at our fingertips. We can learn about management theories, economic theories, and conspiracy theories (hold the tinfoil hat) with equal ease online. But it's also easy to get caught up hearing only what we want to hear and reading only what confirms our existing biases.

The Internet can especially exacerbate our sense of certainty and undermine perspective. Behind the keyboard, we never have to look our ideological opponents in the eye, or even confront their ideology if we don't feel comfortable with it. We might be tempted to dismiss the words glowing back at us as the babbling of a lunatic or the worldview of a moron.

We're protective of the investments we've made in these beliefs that we hold dearly. We may have held fast to them for many years, making them that much more difficult to view dispassionately. When other opinions come to light, we lash out or close ourselves off, afraid of the threat or angry at the impudence. How dare these faceless collections of words call us wrong? How dare they call our knowledge into question?

It's certainly true that not everyone knows what they're talking about, but you might have heard the saying "for every expert there is an equal and opposite expert." A confident learner seeks out what they don't want to hear, and welcomes reasoned opposing views without feeling besieged. If the other side presents their points persuasively and convincingly, there's no shame in listening or even in accepting their arguments over your own. This is much easier to say than it is to enact, of course. Acknowledging the possibility of being wrong is only a first step, but it is the most important one.

To let go is Foolish
How can we come to terms with being wrong -- if and when it happens? What happens when it affects our deeply held beliefs? Should we, as Hunter S. Thompson once put it, "learn to enjoy losing"? We don't have to enjoy losing, but we ought to accept its inevitability because it always lurks just around the corner. The more we cling to the need to be right, the harder it is to accept that others might also be right, and that makes us closed-off individuals and investors. So stop clinging.

We can own our beliefs without being owned by them. We can also examine other beliefs without allowing them to destroy those we have built. Before walling ourselves off with ideology, it's worth taking a step away -- from ourselves, the argument, our opponents -- and looking at things again with different eyes. Before lashing ourselves to the mast of a rigid thought, it's worth looking out from the crow's nest to see if a storm is coming.

We all feel the need to believe something, whether it's that our chosen stocks will go up, our favored candidate is the best one, or even that we'll find a great parking spot at the office tomorrow. Much of this grows out of the importance of "me," which is only a small mind on a small planet in a small corner of a very large universe. But "me" won't be here forever. When I think in those terms, it seems more worthwhile to always get better than to always be right. And that makes it easier for me to say "I was wrong... and I'll be wrong again."

Fool contributor Alex Planes hopes you enjoyed his pseudo-philosophy and can forgive him the next time he's wrong. Add him on Google+ or follow him on Twitter for more news and insights. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.


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