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Admitting When You're Wrong

As a father of two head-strong boys (inherited trait), I struggle with getting them to admit they are wrong when they know they are. Recently I caught my oldest dead-to-rights on something and he stood there and refused to back down. Of course, I was upset, but this was a teachable moment. So I spoke to him very evenly and calmly and said something to the effect of, "We all make mistakes and we're all wrong from time to time. You being wrong about something isn't going to change the fact that I love you and I'm proud of you. But when you are wrong and you know you are wrong and you don't admit it, you're being deceitful. I can't tolerate lying. You know that. And here's why I know you're wrong and why I know you know you're wrong..." and I proceeded to logically show him the pieces that blew apart his position. I want him to learn, while he is still under my roof, that admitting you're wrong is the right thing to do when you realize that you are. I didn't learn that until my first year of college.

At The Citadel, it is a family style arrangement for meals. Two freshmen are usually put on each half of a long table and their job is to serve the upperclassmen at said half of the table, and if they are lucky, try to get a bite to eat. One of those tasks is refilling the glasses when they get low. Certain upperclassmen do it certain ways. Some just want you to keep an eye on their glasses and when the liquid goes below halfway, you had better be filling up that glass. Others move their glasses to a certain point on the table and that's your cue. It was the latter that got me into trouble. At one particular dinner meal, Mr. Leroy Marshall and I got into it. Now Leroy back then was a sophomore and a giant of a man. I had a great deal of respect for Mr. Marshall. I was 5'7" and less than 130 lbs. Leroy probably could have snapped me in two. It's a wonder that he didn't. Here's why.

Right before dinner I had a phone conversation from someone in my family over grades. It was midterms and I would have a 3.5 or so GPA for my classes at that point. This particular person was furious that it wasn't a 4.0. So when I came to dinner, I had a huge chip on my shoulder. I was ready to fight. Even with someone like Leroy. And when his glass separated from his plate, I grabbed it and started to fill it up. He stopped me and asked where the glass was. I pointed to the spot where he had indicated we should pick up his glass from. He stated it wasn't there, but had just come dislodged from his plate. I then proceeded to argue with him. As a freshman you're never supposed to argue with an upperclassman. But I didn't care. I was so angry it didn't matter who he was or who was right. And the conversation got heated very, very quickly.

That's when one of the upperclassmen pulled me off the table and took me aside. He knew where the glass was and he knew I was wrong. He also knew that me fighting back like that wasn't normal behavior for me. And he knew that if I kept going, I was going to pay a heavy price for my refusal to back down. When he pulled me aside, his advice was, "Look, Leroy can kill you and we couldn't stop him." Very true. "But that's not the point." What? "You know you're wrong. And we know you know you're wrong. When you refuse to admit you're wrong, people lose respect for you."

That's not something I had considered. At that point I had stopped seeing red. I could have sworn the glass was where Leroy put it when he wanted a refill. But here was a second guy telling me I was wrong. Because of the respect I had for Leroy, the last thing I wanted was him to lose respect for me. I learned a valuable lesson that day: be willing to admit you are wrong. When you stick to your guns and refuse to do so, people begin to distrust you. They lose respect for you. As a professional, such as being a SQL Server DBA, once they lose that respect and trust, your ability to influence decisions for the better is gone. For my boys, whatever career field they choose to go, the same thing applies.

K. Brian Kelley - Databases, Infrastructure, and Security

IT Security, MySQL, Perl, SQL Server, and Windows technologies.


Posted by SQLRockstar on 15 January 2010

great post Brian. being able to admit mistakes is a tough thing to learn, right alongside knowing when to ask for help.

one thing i learned while coaching hoop was that you need to make good on your words. if you say you are going to do something, you need to follow through. that lesson has paid huge dividends for me as i raise my own children.

Posted by chuckboycejr on 15 January 2010

oy vey!  

I am going through this right now.  I was hostilely shouted down for "reading books" and "citing experts" when attempting to pass on the personal opinions of Gert Drapers and Jimmy May.  The person shouting me down said because he had never heard of them, wikipedia was a more reliable source as are people who worked "in the field".

I have no idea how to reply to such insanity?

Shouting people down is in bad taste anywhere, but in a dispassionate discussion of technology - it's never called for and should not be tolerated within any organization.

Posted by Tim Mitchell on 15 January 2010

Brian, excellent post.  This can be a lesson to those on both sides of the proverbial fence - the person who knows he/she's wrong, as well as the cooler-headed (hopefully) who can calmly diffuse the situation.

Posted by Anonymous on 15 January 2010

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Posted by Merrill Aldrich on 15 January 2010

I get the idea about admitting when you are wrong (owning your mistakes is important, and actually earns the respect of those around you). It's vital.

Philosphical question, though, about your story (full disclosure: my father taught at the Citadel many years ago) -- what useful purpose could the whole upper-classmen drink filling/hazing ritual possibly have? I read this with interest, but my reaction a that point is that that type of interaction is just cruel nonsense. They actually demand not just being waited on, but that each upperclassman gets to decide on some unique code for refilling drinks? And then they get to beat you senseless if you get it wrong? What's the point?

Posted by Jason Brimhall on 15 January 2010

Admitting you are wrong can also be done when you are the one with the cooler head.  It is amazing how fast somebody, who is heated at the moment, will change dispositions when they are confronted with "Yeah, I made a mistake."

Nice post, it was well timed.

Posted by K. Brian Kelley on 16 January 2010


 Much of military training intentionally puts a person under a lot of stress. There are a few reasons for this: (1) the more often a person is under extreme duress, the more likely a person will be able to function while under it, such as in a combat situation; (2) it helps personnel see that many of our so-called limits are really self-imposed and that if we are pushed to it, we are capable of doing far greater than what we think we are; and (3) misery loves company and it is often under stress and duress that personnel bond far better as a team than if they weren't subjected to much pressure at all. So the yelling, the strict rules, the constant changes in regimen (like upperclassmen having different "codes" for how they wanted their glass refilled) is all about inducing stress and allowing cadets to learn how to react in appropriate means under it.

With respect to dinner, it's the idea of learning to follow and serve before you lead. If you don't ever get the experience of being one who takes orders, you're missing a crucial set of experiences if are called upon to give orders. The Citadel's goal has always been to train citizen-soldiers for South Carolina. So it is extremely important that this principle be well-learned by cadets. This is what the entire freshman year is about, not just at The Citadel, but at military academies like VMI, Norwich, Texas A&M, Virginia Tech, West Point, the Air Force Academy, and Annapolis (Naval Academy).

As for beating one senseless, that's prohibited at all these academies. In cases where there is such violence, there is not only punishment at the school, but also the perpetrator is handed over to be dealt with by appropriate legal enforcement. But given all of that, put yourself in the shoes of a college sophomore where some college freshman is shouting you down and being mouthy and disrespectful. He's in your face and he won't shut up though he's wrong. At any college across the land, that can escalate into that freshman getting the pulp beat out of him. That's not a Citadel thing, that's a real life thing.

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