Being less wrong

Satyajit Rout
2 min readJan 30, 2023

Just one question can tell you a lot about a person.

I’m not talking about an interview question. In fact, the question I’m going to ask is probably going to make you raise an eyebrow or two. And you’re not even obliged to answer it. But it has the power to reveal a lot about you.

❓How much does the elephant in the picture weigh? Drop in a comment. You can pick your unit–kg or lb.

We’re embarrassed about being wrong. So we tend to say ‘I don’t know’ when we don’t want to make a wrong guess. Or we offer a precise estimate as if we have the exact information.

When we don’t have all the information and we’re asked to guess, we switch between saying ‘I have no idea’ AND offering a bull’s-eye answer.

💡We alternate between underselling and overselling what we know. Both can be poor ways to get better at predicting outcomes.

Here’s the truth: most of the time, we do have an idea. It is not nothing, but it is also not everything.

👉A good practice against uncertainty is to try and build a target range, instead of jumping to an exact number.

Now, if you’ve to guess the weight of this elephant, saying ‘I don’t know’ means you’re ignoring what you already know. You already know your weight and the fact that an elephant–any elephant–weighs more than you do. You already have a lower bound.

You can then home in on an upper bound that factors the size of the elephant shown. You probably know there aren’t land mammals bigger than an elephant, and you imagine that any elephant is lighter than a blue whale. You can base these as references to guesstimate the upper bound. Once you’ve put some thought into defining the range of values, you’ve already improved your chances of being less wrong.

Being less wrong may seem like an unexceptional goal. But in life being less wrong matters. It can be the difference between losing some and all of your savings, between one and all of your limbs, between blowing one and all chances.

As a child, I used to drive my folks mad by quizzing them about animal weights and outcomes of inter-species face-offs (hippo versus rhino!). I was mostly rebuffed. If my child shows any such tendency, I’ll make it a point to teach her the art of building an educated guess.

Our imagination tends to be captured by an all-or-nothing syndrome. We forget there’s an entire range of hits from the edge to the bull’s eye.

Forget about the bull’s eye at first. Work on getting closer to it, step by step. Be less wrong.

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Satyajit Rout

I write about decision-making, mental models, and better thinking and things in between