In retrospect it’s hard to believe, but in 1876 a Western Union memo described the telephone as having no value to the company. In 1957 Lee de Forest, an inventor with more than 180 patents to his name, proclaimed that a manned mission to the moon would never occur. In 1961 the commissioner of the Federal Communications Commission stated there was virtually no chance satellites in space would be used to augment television, telephone, or radio transmissions in the United States. The following year a successful music producer named Dick Rowe turned down the Beatles, having decided that guitar bands were on the way out.
What’s stunning about this collection of astoundingly wrong prognostications is not that these particular glimpses into the future were so myopic. Rather, it’s that being wrong is such a common thing when trying to anticipate what the future will hold. In each case these errant predictions were made by smart people who were respected in their field. People who were successful by the standards of their industry. Yet they were wrong. Very wrong. Embarrassingly wrong.
What about you?
Admitting we’re wrong is not something that comes easily to most of us. For some it is a virtual impossibility. Yet we are wrong from time to time. Often, in fact.
Generally we like to think of ourselves as being bright, insightful, and reasonably sharp. But that does not in any way make us infallible. So while it is easy to see the human race is fallible when viewed objectively, we rarely see failings in ourselves that lead to incorrect predictions. The self-insulating subjective view provides us with some protection from the ugly truth. We’re wrong – a lot.
If we were as right as we think we are we’d all be making a fortune in the stock market. Our football and baseball fantasy teams would be cleaning up, and Las Vegas would be a private playground for the soon-to-be-rich. But that’s not the way things work. Because we’re wrong more often than we’d like to think. And knowing that hurts, so we ignore the reality in favor of the fantasy.
Living in a delusional fantasyland of our own creation may be ultimately self-defeating, but it’s more comfortable and less challenging thank accepting reality for what it is. So many of us prefer to do just that – we delude ourselves into thinking we’re more on the ball than we really are.
Do you see yourself in this scenario? Where are you? On the right side, the wrong side, or in the zone of realism? In the zone we’re ignorant. We have gaps in our knowledge base. We continue to strive to be better, but know we’ll never get to the point that we know everything about anything. But we try anyway. That’s just the way we are.
You might want to re-read that first paragraph again. This time, keep in mind that each of those people was spectacularly wrong about at least one thing. Yet they were right about plenty of other things. Lots of things. As few of us are universally wrong as we are universally right. But we each have our moments. Even them. Even you.
So be bold, make mistakes and be proud of the lessons you learn in the process. When your crystal ball is fuzzy and the future is less than 20/20, accept it. And when you’re absolutely sure you know what’s going to happen in the future – but you turn out to be wrong – accept that too.
It’s a big world with lots of opportunity for those who seek it out. Remember, Dick Rowe may have become famous for not signing the Beatles, but he learned his lesson well enough to be the guy who went out and signed the Rolling Stones to their first recording contract. One loss, one win. On average he did pretty darned well.
In this sense at least life is a lot like basketball. If you can’t sink every shot, put some effort into learning how to rebound. One way or the other, you’ll stay in the game and make a real contribution to the team.