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Being Wrong in the Time of a Pandemic


A friend of mine, while discussing the direction we were going to take on something related to work, asked me, "How do you know if you're wrong?"

It was a strange questions because my initial reaction was to think that no one could know they were wrong before knowing they were wrong. And that's largely true. You can't predict the future. You can't know in the moment that you are wrong if you truly believe yourself to be right. But I've come to realize he meant something different with his question. It wasn't about figuring out in the moment if you're wrong. The real question was:

How do you analyze whether you were wrong and adjust appropriately after the fact?

It seems like this is a built-in thing that humans do. We realize we were wrong about something and we address that at the time of realization. But that's not actually how it works most of the time, is it? We all know the phrase, "history repeats itself." The only way for that phrase to have any truth—which it does—is for humans to do a poor job at recognizing that they were wrong and adjusting to that fact.

I'm not always good at this, which I suspect is the state for most people. Though, as a founder of a startup that lives and dies on being able to adjust quickly as the result of being wrong or the result of changes in the market, I have had to get better. And I have gotten better. Made a wrong product decision? Admit it and move on to the next. Targeted the wrong customer segment? Admit it and find a new segment. Made a bad bet on marketing? Admit it and allocate the marketing budget better going forward.

But what happens when being wrong has significantly more dire consequences? What happens when being wrong can put lives at risk? This is a question many Americans (and people worldwide) have asked themselves internally and, perhaps, aloud as the world has been gripped with COVID-19. What happens if I'm wrong? What happens if my friends and family are wrong? What happens if local governments are wrong? What happens if world leaders are wrong?

I was wrong.

It really wasn't until about two and half to three weeks ago that I started taking the coronavirus spread seriously. When I first heard about the outbreak in China, I was working in New York City. There was some joking paranoia among the people I was working with that slowly descended into real paranoia. Yet, it wasn't until I was getting ready to return home after three months in New York that the real concern set in. On my flight back home, as a woman next to me offered me disinfectant wipes to wipe down my seat while she wiped down her own, I realized how wrong I had been.

I try to steer clear of conspiracy theories, and unfortunately, much of the early talk about coronavirus online was full of conspiracies. Many of these conspiracies turned out to be true, but my natural skepticism toward conspiracies made me discount the entire epidemic-turned-pandemic. I didn't allow myself the time to learn more about the virus. I made a snap judgment.

And I was wrong.

But here's the thing. When I realized I was wrong, I made adjustments. My family has now been social distancing for over a week. We have limited our time away from home to essentials—groceries, mostly. We had been following WHO and CDC recommendations on hand-washing and disinfecting for weeks before this, but now with the realization of just how bad COVID-19 was and is going to be, we've hunkered down for what could be a long and frustrating spring and summer. But we did it because it was the right response. Despite me being wrong originally.

I wish I could say the same is true for everyone who realizes they were wrong about coronavirus. I wish I could say the President of the United States was able to admit he was wrong and adjust. Instead, he's only now taken action to stem the stock market drop and prevent his hopes at re-election from diminishing. I suspect many people who, today, still joke about COVID-19 just being a flu have realized they are wrong. Yet, they go to the bars for St. Patrick's Day weekend. They go to restaurants. They ignore that feeling in the back of their mind that says, "you're wrong, fix this."

Being wrong is part of life. Not recognizing and adjusting to being wrong is also a very human thing. Unfortunately, we do not have the luxury of being wrong about coronavirus and not adjusting. We, as a world, have to understand if you are still out socializing and congregating with a lot of people, you are wrong AND you are not acknowledging and adjusting to that wrong.

We can no long be wrong and ignore being wrong in the time of a pandemic.