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Why are you afraid to be wrong?

From a young age, my automatic response to my parents telling me anything was, “I know.”

“That pan doesn’t belong in there,” my mom would say as I reached to put the pan in the wrong cabinet.

“I know,” I’d say, and seamlessly shift to make it look like I was actually aiming for its actual home.

My mom wasn’t afraid to challenge back. “No, you don’t know,” she’d say. “You don’t know everything and that’s why I’m telling you!”

I’m sure every kid remembers a time in their life when this cold hard truth really hit. But when you get older, that feeling can get more complicated. For me, I realized that it’s not that I wanted to know everything, it’s that I didn’t want to be wrong. And this carried over into my opinion writing.

I always set out with the intention of being right in my writing, but I also had this feeling that I couldn’t be wrong because it would somehow invalidate me as a writer. Plus people will tell you when you are wrong, and I’ve got very thin skin.

I’m not sure if there was one experience or a string of them that led me to feel like I couldn’t be wrong in writing, but I do think it started around the time of my first internship.

I was a bright-eyed young editor who was ecstatic that the publication I was interning for let me write a series of web articles about a local music festival. However, after those three articles, things took a turn for the worse. Things became really tense as the editors I worked directly under became angry that I didn’t know certain editorial things that they thought I should know, like fact-checking and writing bite-size features.

I thought the point of the internship was to learn things that I didn’t know, because how could I know them as a newly announced mass communication major? We disagreed (they said they didn’t have time to teach me new things), and they started to shun me in a sense. They let me write one 200-word piece about a band, and turned down another piece I wrote with no feedback to offer. They ended up not giving me any other work that summer besides tagging articles on their website. I began to believe that it was because I was a bad writer.

(Oh yeah, and when all was said and done with the internship, my direct supervisor failed to mention that I needed to work five more hours to get class credit for the internship, so I didn’t even get any credit for my time there.)

When starting that internship, I didn’t really know anything about the writing world. I had just started journalism classes that previous semester, and this was a major step toward making that mass communication degree a reality. But the internship broke me. From then on, I was even more afraid to be wrong, even to the point where I’d refuse to write because I knew that if I was wrong, I’d feel like shit.

This is a big reason why I was afraid to write for a while. I felt like I needed to be right in everything I wrote and I was afraid to share my ideas lest someone would deem them wrong. (I also felt like no one cared what I had to say, which is always debatable.)

The other day I received my weekly Sunday e-newsletter from Paul Jarvis, a tech designer, author and freelance writer, and the topic was about how he doesn’t write to be right. It really hit home for me and I started to think about how my fear of being wrong in writing has evolved.

At my last job writing for a major publication in the home furnishings industry, I had been writing business content for so long with the purpose of being a reliable information source that I felt like everything I wrote needed to based in fact. I wrote opinion pieces there, but they also had facts involved, so I felt more comfortable knowing that I was stating my opinion based on a solid fact. Because if it was fact-based, there was more of a chance that I was going to be right.

But most people aren’t right when they write opinion pieces, and that’s not the point. In fact, it’s rather unproductive. Rather, as Jarvis says of himself, he writes to figure things out for himself and open up the discussion. To bring new ideas into the open and see how people react to them.

I think that’s an amazing way to look at it, though it is easy to forget. I’m going to make a conscious effort to keep this in mind as I write in the future. In fact, what I’ve just done here is essentially what Jarvis was talking about: continuing the discussion. I came to a similar conclusion as he did, but I found the problem that was personally holding me back.

So what’s holding you back?

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