When I attended college, I was not a very good student, and it was largely due to fear. Professors would ask a question and look out at those of us attending the class, waiting for someone to respond. I knew the two or three people who would raise their hand and contribute—those same people always contributed—and I was thankful for them. I diverted my eyes from the front of the classroom, studied the margins of my notebook, pretended to take notes, and hoped that one day a cloak of invisibility would really exist for such occasions.
It wasn’t that I didn’t want to learn. It wasn’t that I didn’t have an idea of what the answer would be. It wasn’t that I was being humble about my knowledge. The reason I didn’t participate was simple: I was afraid of not being right.
Not being right meant being wrong. It meant looking stupid. It meant admitting that I wasn’t as smart as everyone else in the classroom. Those were my secrets. I could fake my way through lecture halls and avoid discussions and nobody would have to know the truth.
That fear of being wrong kept me from discovering that the biggest step in learning is admitting what you don’t know. Once I accepted that much can be learned from not being right, my whole world changed. I stopped pretending I knew everything and acknowledged how little I knew about the things that mattered to me. And then I set about changing that. Instead of being embarrassed because I was wrong, I started asking why I wasn’t right.
The fear of being wrong is much like the fear of failure. Why try to accomplish something that isn’t a guaranteed risk? Why set yourself up for ridicule and criticism? Why expose your shortcomings?