The art of being wrong: Live to mess up another day

I was wrong. 

Wallowing astern of a commercial fishing boat tied up in Gloucester Harbor, I yelled up to the captain that all four props were in good shape. He’d asked me to dive under the boat, and look for dinged blades.

“Great,” Tommy laughed, “but the boat only has three.” Harbor water is murky, but hang on, this is a compound error. 

Dave Millhouser

Jumping into the harbor, it hadn’t occurred to me that planning on how to exit the water might be important. Wrong … there were no ladders on the boat, or the dock. 

Recognizing real talents

As we age, some of us finally stumble on our real talents and, after decades of searching, I finally recognized mine.

The gift of being “wrong.”  

Looking back on life, I was sure of all sorts of things, and many turned out to be wrong. Aging refines your “Bull Poopy Filter,” and it becomes marginally easier to anticipate or mitigate mistakes. 

The trick to “creative wrongness” is timing, the ability to recognize that an act or idea is doo-doo and limp away from it. Ego complicates things by pointing out we may look silly, and motivational speakers remind us that, if we persist, we can do anything.


They can jump off a cliff and flap like a hummingbird, but willing themselves to fly ain’t gonna end well. I’d still be under the dock if I hadn’t admitted folly, cried like a baby and begged Tommy to drag me out. 

Timing matters

The ability to be wrong is freeing. In our business, it takes the form of trying all sorts of new services, ideas and equipment, but always with the caveat that they might fail. Many new ideas were “wrong” before they became right — timing matters.

If our ego is willing to step back, we can try lots of things and, if they fail, stagger away and look for better mistakes. Thomas Edison made 6,000 before inventing a practical light bulb.

Timing is critical when bailing out, then starting the search for new mistakes. A reasonable fulcrum is to listen when a voice in your head begins screaming, “What the hell was I thinking? Those triple-deck artics on the Kumquat-to-Podunk route aren’t cash flowing.”

Murky waters

Here we enter murky waters (harbor pun intended). If you paid a bazillion bucks for those jewels, and there is no alternative use, or market, for them, you’re in Poopie City.

The art of being wrong boils down to two things: Last (but critical) is knowing how to exit. Before leaping in, make sure you can get out without drowning. We should be wrong sometimes, but it’s important to survive until we’re right. There’s a right way to be wrong.

NEXT TO LAST … LISTEN when that voice yells “What the HELL was I thinking?” Stifle your ego and start looking for your bussy version of Tommy. Live to mess up another day. 

When you’re waffling, refer back to “stifle your ego.” It’s better to be successful than “important.” Trust me … harbor water REALLY stinks. Get out when the time is right.

‘I was wrong’

If we aren’t wrong sometimes, we aren’t trying. Two of Johnny Unitas’ first three pro passes were interceptions. Babe Ruth often struck out. If you’re always right, you’ll likely flop. 

You may feel this concept isn’t useful in business … but in marriage it never fails. “I was wrong” works miracles. Trust me. If you want to guarantee bliss, just add “Dear,” as in, “I was wrong, Dear.”

It took a lifetime to become good at being wrong. My wife, Susan, says that another of my gifts is “nothing.” Apparently, I’m really good at that, too.

Dave Millhouser is chief columnist for Bus & Motorcoach News. He isn’t afraid to make fun of himself in the pursuit of the truth and humor. You can reach him at and see his collection of columns and photos at

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