How to Be Right All the Time

an idea

Yesterday I came across a familiar quote on Twitter:

“I haven’t failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that don’t work.”

~ Thomas Edison

Then today I came across an equally interesting quote from another historical figure:

“I haven’t failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that don’t work.”

~ Ben Franklin

Oh.

With the information age in full swing, I see a lot of this nowadays. Two versions of the truth emerge, each as unassuming as the other.

So are we to just pick one? I guess. Which one do you believe, that’s the real question. And once you pick a belief, are you going to call it knowledge?

Pieces of information, particularly quotations, get misrepresented rather easily. One of the most common scenarios is this: 1) somebody hears a quote that they like, then 2) they change the wording to make it more clear or snappy to themselves or others. It doesn’t take a particularly deceitful or vain person to do it. I’m sure I have. That’s why you see:

“A rose is but a rose by any other name.”

~William Shakespeare

much more often than

“What’s in a name? That which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet.”

~William Shakespeare

…as it is worded straight out of Romeo and Juliet.

Likewise, you’re much more likely to know

“Religion is the opiate of the masses.”

~ Karl Marx

instead of the more cumbersome but more accurate phrase

“Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.”

~Karl Marx

…which of course is not how it appears verbatim in Marx’s Contribution to Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right. The work was in German.

And just what is that stuffy-sounding title anyway? I thought our famous opiate-religion quote was from Marx’s better-known and more snappily-titled work, The Communist Manifesto. I was so sure. Where did I “learn” that?

Culture prefers to embrace the quotable, the snappy, the palatable. Accuracy be damned. If the quoter thinks he can do better, he probably will. After all, for what purpose do we relate these clever quotations to other people anyway? Let’s be honest — is it to provide an accurate history lesson, or to sound clever and make people smile? I know which one is more gratifying to me. It’s okay, poor Karl will never know.

Often a bastardized quote retains its original meaning, but it is still a falsehood. You might even call it slander. You’re saying somebody said something that they didn’t say. Emerson is a frequent victim of this.

I wonder who will be taking liberties with our own words (and deeds) once we’re dead and unable to do anything about it.

10,000 Failures

Now, I am pretty sure it was indeed Thomas Edison who quipped about the 10,000 failures, but the truth is I don’t really know. I think I know, but my knowledge is only hearsay.

After all, I can source them both. Edison said it. Franklin said it.

I am confident that if I were to trace the sources back further I would become more and more sure that it was Edison. He was known for his unmatched persistence, and this quote was a reference to his efforts to create a working light bulb. Yes that’s it. Or at least that seems to be the impression I have.

Trouble is, I don’t remember exactly where I got that impression. Somewhere along the line I guess I bought it, but between you and me I don’t remember where, and I definitely can’t find the receipt.

The only real source, the industrious inventor (or the maybe bespectacled kite-flyer) is dead and gone, completely irretrievable. So all we’re left with is a squabble over the evidence.

Of course I never met the man himself, I’ve just collected a lot of hearsay about him. Confidence is all I can really ever have. I can always find more backup for my belief, ideally from smarter and more scholarly people. I could probably gather so many matching opinions that there would be no doubt in my mind that it was indeed Edison who uttered that cheeky phrase many years ago. But no matter how much evidence I collect, it is nothing but the best guesses of other people — hand-picked because they agree with mine — and their product can never amount to more than a very strong belief. If I gather my hearsay from established and official-looking sources — university texts with big words, or soundbytes from people with PhDs — then I may be able to convince myself (and others) that I actually know for sure.

Yet we can so easily convince ourselves that we know something without doubt, so much so that we’d often rather argue the point with someone else than apply a “maybe” to our claim.

Warning: This Might be Complete BS

Maybe “maybe” is the way out of this conundrum. It does seem to be the responsible way. But it’s just so weak. How do you inspire people with, “It is possible that the great Ben Franklin once said ‘A penny saved is a penny earned.’ Well, it is possible that he was great.”

Obviously, to communicate anything, we have to cheat a little. To some degree, we have to call our opinions facts. But maybe it wouldn’t hurt to remember that there is an asterisk next to everything we say — fine print beneath all spoken and written statements that stipulates, “Warning: This might be complete BS.”

Writer Robert Anton Wilson, self-described as “agnostic about everything” is fond of saying “The universe contains a maybe.” I think that’s a good motto. There is an interesting paradox: whenever you state a fact, qualifying it with a “maybe” instantly makes it more accurate.

The word agnostic doesn’t need to refer to belief in God. Any belief will work. It could apply to the belief that saturated fat is bad for you, or that going back to school isn’t practical at your age, or that you’re not cut out for daily meditation practice. We all build a whole mental environment for ourselves out of beliefs that feel every bit as firm as facts. Not that there’s really a difference between the two.

To take an agnostic stance isn’t deciding not to take a stance, it’s to admit to yourself that somehow, through all the unseen biases and illusions in life — not to mention the fallibility conferred simply by being human — we can’t really be in possession of the truth.

The Objectivity Myth

Science is very helpful. I am a big fan. What it’s good for is removing personal doubt from certain beliefs by convincing you that enough other people — particularly smart people in labcoats who are good at removing biases and testing assumptions — have come to the same conclusion, and therefore you can safely operate with that belief.

The scientific method works by examining a question, stating an existing belief (called a hypothesis), then testing that belief many times to see if it is still worth believing. Eventually, when something has been tested enough, we may become confident enough to add it to what we call the body of human knowledge, which we can all safely draw from in the future. Once we anoint it with the prestigious title knowledge, we tend to remove any maybes from our thoughts about it.

We use science to add to a growing, collective model of the universe that seems to exist outside of any one individual. Over the centuries, many different humans from many different backgrounds have contributed their conclusions to it. As time moves along, new discoveries refine it, and our understanding of the universe becomes more complete and less mysterious.

Science is supposed to be an objective collection of facts, free from individual biases and opinions, because it wouldn’t be science if a lot of different people didn’t come to the same conclusion. Watching the sun rise, you are probably aware that it isn’t really rising and setting per se, it just looks like it from our viewpoint on the surface of the earth. We know the earth is spinning, so the sky appears to spin around us. But we can think about it “objectively” and picture a blue marble spinning and revolving around a yellow ball, though we’d never really see that through our own eyes.

Objectivity, as rock-hard and external as it seems, is really a fallacy. It’s an abstraction that can only be applied by a fallible human being from his or her own subjective viewpoint. As nice and revealing as it would be, we just can’t step out from behind our eyeballs and take an objective look.

That’s okay though, it doesn’t change things all that much. I don’t think it will turn your world upside down. Life will still present itself in the same way it always has, and as I said, we have to cheat a little and pretend for the most part that we’re dealing in facts, otherwise we couldn’t function. We’re used to that anyway. In terms of practical day-to-day operation, the only real difference is your awareness of an ever-present, blinking asterisk, appended to every statement of fact and certainty.

When I remember to think like that, I experience a few differences in interacting with people. The main one  is that I bite my tongue whenever I’m about to say something along the lines of “Let me tell you how it is.” I remember that no matter how I word it, I’m never able to offer anything more than “Here’s how I see it.”

And it’s strangely liberating. Finally I can be correct.

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Photo by aloshbennett

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{ 33 Comments }

Patty - Why Not Start Now? October 26, 2009 at 1:31 am

Truth. Objectivity. Science. You’re in a very Sage-like place today. I like it. One of the best things I ever heard about wisdom came from Carol Pearson. (And yes, I’m misquoting because I don’t fully remember it). Something like when we detach and recognize that truth is complex, that humans beings are by nature both subjective and objective, then we experience true wisdom. And I agree – it is quite liberating to say here’s how it seems to me, but I don’t know for sure. Because having to be right is so exhausting!
.-= Patty – Why Not Start Now?´s last blog ..Creative Inspiration From Stephen Sondheim =-.

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David October 26, 2009 at 10:28 am

Hi Patty. That’s right, it is exhausting!

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Kim October 26, 2009 at 3:44 am

Funny, this morning we were discussing “that chinese curse” “may you live in interesting times”. It isn’t a chinese curse and there seems not to be any consensus on where it came from…
.-= Kim´s last blog ..Impressions of North Korea – Visit to Kumsun Palace =-.

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David October 26, 2009 at 10:29 am

That reminds me of one of my teachers who always used to give us some quote and say, “That’s an old Chinese saying I made up.”

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Tiffani W November 2, 2009 at 11:05 am

Cute :D

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Jay Schryer October 26, 2009 at 5:49 am

“Objectivity, as rock-hard and external as it seems, is really a fallacy.” ~David D. Cain

That’s a really great quote, David. And the best part is that years from now, people can misquote you! :)

But seriously, this is a great concept, and one that so many people forget. Truly great scientists never remove the “maybe” from their work, because they know that a new discovery is always waiting around the corner, and that discovery can change everything they thought they knew in an instant. For the general populace, it would be good for us to remember this, because we too can never tell what new discovery is around the next corner of our lives that will completely change everything we thought we knew.
.-= Jay Schryer´s last blog ..Thou Shalt Not Sell Out =-.

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David October 26, 2009 at 10:33 am

Hi Jay. I totally agree. There is actually a lot of dogma in science too, even though some people claim science to be the opposite of faith. What science does better is that it gives you more reasons to believe. But most of us are just taking the word of somebody else in any case.

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Avi October 28, 2009 at 9:46 pm

(Just to nitpick :) ) With science, we take the word of scientists but technically you can verify it yourself if you spend the time and effort.

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Tiffani W November 2, 2009 at 11:08 am

Avi – that too is an illusion, though. Just because we experience something with our senses, doesn’t mean that’s exactly what happened. Pulling off David’s article, it really is impossible to be objective about anything. And even if a lot of people agree on something, that doesn’t make it true.

Science itself doesn’t require faith, since science is just attempting to describe observations. But if you ever believe anything because you’ve learned it using the scientific method, then you’re using faith to make that leap from subjective to objective.
.-= Tiffani W´s last blog ..Transitions =-.

Positively Present October 26, 2009 at 5:49 am

Really enjoyed this post today! You’ve really made me think, which is great!
.-= Positively Present´s last blog ..how to let go of what you don’t need =-.

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David October 26, 2009 at 10:33 am

Hey thanks Dani!

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Lisis October 26, 2009 at 6:27 am

This reminds me of Nadia’s recent post about what we can know for certain. Truth is, the only thing we can know is what we believe. Everything else is under so many layers of assumption and misrepresentation, it’s a bit like playing “telephone”. Did you ever play that? You whisper a message to the person next to you, and by the time the message makes it to the end of the line it is nothing like the original.

I guess we have no clue what the heck came before us, which explains why history keeps repeating itself. It’s all just bastardized information and politicized opinion. How very liberating! Now I don’t have to waste my time teaching Hunter all that crap. :)

Oh, and I can’t wait to misquote that line Jay pulled out… so many colorful (and inappropriate) phrases I can turn that into!
.-= Lisis´s last blog ..Inspiration: Helen Keller “Great and Noble Tasks” =-.

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David October 26, 2009 at 10:35 am

Oh yes I remember telephone. Great fun. I remember one troublesome aspect about it was that people would often distort the message on purpose, because that’s what made it funny. I lost faith in it somewhere along the line :)

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Alvin April 3, 2014 at 1:00 pm

Thank you for every other fantastic article.
Where else may anyone get that type of information in such a perfect means of writing?
I have a presentation subsequent week, and I’m at the look for such information.

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Srinivas Rao October 26, 2009 at 10:46 am

Interesting post David. Definitely very deep. Hope your travels are going well :)
.-= Srinivas Rao´s last blog ..Why worrying is a COMPLETE waste of time and energy =-.

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David October 26, 2009 at 11:32 am

Yes, very well so far!

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Char (PSI Tutor:Mentor) October 26, 2009 at 3:49 pm

Oral traditions of passing on knowledge embedded in layers of meaning requires particular words, sometimes in set sequences~alternatively, open education using tools such as wiki seek to re-use and sometimes re-write portions of info to suit particular needs and to build on shared knowledge.

Buddha and others speak of the limitations of words to share knowledge; once we label experience we devalue it.

I love the grey-mu fringe of existence; would drive lecturers nuts at uni, those who had life [me] all worked out. Apparently I’m arrogant~ maybe…
.-= Char (PSI Tutor:Mentor)´s last blog ..A Collection of Student Resources =-.

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David October 26, 2009 at 6:31 pm

Hi Char. I agree, words can’t really represent a whole experience, but we regularly sum them up with just a word or two.

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Kaushik October 26, 2009 at 5:15 pm

If we’re honest, we find there isn’t much we know for certain. We know there is Awareness. We know all experience is in the Now. We know “I” exist.

It turns out the third one isn’t true.

Great article, thanks.
.-= Kaushik´s last blog ..Healing… =-.

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David October 26, 2009 at 6:33 pm

Thanks Kaushik. There was a whole part that I left out, about how awareness is really the only knowledge we have. To be aware of something is to know it, but that doesn’t mean that our interpretations of it are correct, just that we know we are aware.

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suzen October 26, 2009 at 9:10 pm

Hi David,
My goodness, you went deep today! I read the title and thought to myself “Well, aren’t you glad you gave up the need to be right!” And then I read the post.

Quotes – yikes. I worked for a newspaper and either taped or directly transcribed what people told me. STILL, I was told I misquoted. Grrr – they just didn’t remember what they said!

And truth? I wonder if truth, like beauty, isn’t in the eye or mind of the beholder?
.-= suzen´s last blog ..Reclaiming Great Relationships! =-.

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David October 27, 2009 at 11:12 pm

That’s an interesting point that last one. I guess truth can only be “that which is apparent to me.” I don’t know how else you’d know it when you saw it.

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Dayne | TheHappySelf.com October 27, 2009 at 9:33 am

Now that is one deep post David. :) But in many ways, I see your points. Funny you should mention that Edison quote, I think I tweeted that last week. Go figure.

Nice job!
Dayne
.-= Dayne | TheHappySelf.com´s last blog ..Life Lessons From A Cancer Survivor =-.

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David October 27, 2009 at 11:13 pm

Yes but did you tweet it as an Edison Quote or a Franklin quote? :)

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Eric October 27, 2009 at 2:58 pm

I started reading this yesterday, but had to put it off a day so I could really read through it. You have a knack for starting on a light topic and quickly morphing into something much more meaningful and thought provoking.

Also, for what it’s worth, I have visited the Thomas Edison house and museum in Ft. Myers, Florida, and they site the 10,000 ways quote as coming from Edison. I assume they would know, but I suppose it is still just hearsay. Edison was a fascinating individual, and one of my favorite persons from history. I highly suggest taking the tour of his home if you every find your self in the Ft. Myers area.
.-= Eric´s last blog ..Vacation Rage – Nine ways to reduce theme park stress =-.

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David October 27, 2009 at 11:15 pm

Hi Eric. I definitely will if I pass through. I’m beginning to become a museum junkie.

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Brenda October 27, 2009 at 4:19 pm

I love quotes. What was it exactly that Emerson said about them? You quoted him a while back. I also love this one: Convictions create convicts: what you believe imprisons you. As for factual errors, they don’t count against you on the SAT. You can write a whole essay about President Benjamin Franklin and potentially (though not likely) score high. Students use that Edison quote a lot, but their numbers vary — 1,000, 10,000, 100,000? One student thought Franklin and Edison were both Presidents. They probably should have been. They lit up the world. Great minds are so interesting to follow.
.-= Brenda´s last blog ..Laughter is a Funny Thing =-.

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David October 27, 2009 at 11:18 pm

Many people are surprised to learn Franklin was not a president. I guess his prestigious place on the $100 bill has something to do with it.

Emerson’s famous quote is: “I dislike quotations. Tell me what you know.” But sometimes it is quoted as “I hate quotations.” I have not come across it in his essays so I’m not sure at all which is right.

{ Reply }

Tiffani W November 2, 2009 at 11:18 am

David -

This is such a great post. It’s weird; you often comment on issues that I’ve been especially focused on at the time!

My self-confidence and sense of inner peace have increased exponentially since I realized that I don’t really know anything. I can only make generalizations based on my own personal experience. And really, your daily life and relationships are so much more interesting if you stop trying to provide answers and instead step back and ask questions instead.

I’m pretty impatient in general, and I have a hard time listening to someone I disagree with (or even agree with) without jumping in and taking over the conversation. But recently I’ve realized: I already know what I believe. It doesn’t benefit me in any way to restate it, especially not to someone who doesn’t particularly care. It’s in my self-interest to hear how other people see things. And just because you listen to someone and consider their perspective, it doesn’t mean you lose your own or that you even necessarily agree with or accept it. It’s just allowing yourself to look through someone else’s glasses and seeing how different the world can look. Why wouldn’t you want to do that??

Anyway, I love your blog. And I hope that having readers who are interested in your perspective makes you feel happy and cared about. :)
.-= Tiffani W´s last blog ..Transitions =-.

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Tom K March 12, 2010 at 4:20 pm

Why not cut to the chase: Ben Franklin? Thomas Edison? Neither. LIFE said it. EVERYTHING is Life’s heresay, Life whispering in your ears, Life’s energy-through-the-brain, gushing out everywhere, everyhow and everywhen. Fun, yes?

{ Reply }

Daemon Sinclair September 5, 2011 at 11:27 am

To be fair in a literal sense, Edison can’t deny the fact that he failed. Succeeding in one subject doesn’t simply make all past failures invalid- They still happened, and without them a goal wouldn’t of been achieved. It would of been more “right” to state,”A passionate success can trump 10,000 failures.” Or something of the sort.

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John Nicolson August 1, 2012 at 10:06 pm

Strewth!
(Luke 4:23 comes to mind).

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anonymous September 1, 2012 at 1:55 pm

Facebook the only place where you can say whatever the heck you want-Martin Luther king J.R

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