How to Reverse a Mistake in the Middle of It

I was moving as fast as I could and not getting anywhere, a feeling I’m well acquainted with. This time, though, it was deliberate: I was on a stationary Spin bicycle.

When the towel draped over my handlebars fell to the ground, I tried to stop pedaling and get off. Tried being the operative word. I couldn’t stop. There was simply too much forward momentum. The pedals seemed to be moving by a force of their own. It took me several moments of slowly backing off my speed before I could coax the pedals to stand still.

Momentum is hard to resist.

For example, 15 minutes into a political argument with a friend, I realized I wasn’t sure I agreed with my own position. He was arguing so harshly that I found myself taking the opposite side, vehemently supporting ideas I didn’t know enough about. And it was hard to stop.

It’s especially hard to stop when you’re invested in being right, when you’ve spent time, energy, emotion, and sometimes money on your point of view.

I have several friends who got married and divorced within a year or two. Every one of them told me they knew, at the time they were getting married, that it wouldn’t work. But they had gone too far and they didn’t know how to stop it. It’s the same story with people I know who made some investments that seemed to be going south. They knew it wasn’t working, but they had already invested so much it was hard to face the mistake. In some cases they put more money in and lost it all.

Sometimes it’s not so dramatic. It might be an argument about which resources to put on which project. Or a decision about whether or not to continue to pursue a particular opportunity.

When you have the sense you’ve made a mistake but you’ve already pushed so hard it would be embarrassing to back out, how do you backpedal?

I have two strategies that help me pull back my own momentum: Slow Down and Start Over.

Slow Down: As I found on my Spin bike, it’s almost impossible to backpedal hard enough to reverse direction on the spot. It helps to see it as a process. First, just stop pedaling so hard. Then, as the momentum starts to lose its force, gently begin to change direction.

In a discussion in which you’ve been pushing hard and suspect you might be wrong, begin to argue your point less and listen to the other side more. Buy some time by saying something like: “That’s an interesting point, I need to think about it some more.” Or, “tell me more about what you mean.” Listening is the perfect antidote to momentum since it’s non-committal to any point of view.

If it’s an investment, reduce it some, without taking it all out, so that literally you have less invested in being right.

Start Over: This is a mental game I learned from a friend who’s a successful investor. I was hesitant to sell an investment that was doing poorly. My friend asked me the following question: If I was starting from scratch at today’s price, would I purchase the investment? I sold it that day.

It’s inevitable that our history impacts our current decisions. If I hired someone and invested energy and money supporting his success, it would be hard for me to admit he’s not working out. But, knowing what I know now, would I hire him? If not, I should let him go. Same thing with a project I’ve supported or a decision I’ve promoted. I imagine I’m a new manager coming into the project. Would I continue it? Invest additional resources? Or move on?

I’ve seen people’s inability to admit they’re wrong destroy their marriages and decimate their businesses and professional lives. In many cases they tell me it’s because they didn’t want to appear weak. But it takes great strength of character to admit you’re wrong or even to question your own views. And others perceive this as strength too.

Great leaders have enough confidence to look critically at their own perspective and stay open to other people’s points of view, using the technique of Slowing Down. Even when they know they’re right.

Allan Rosenfield, past Dean of Columbia’s School of Public Health, was one such leader. He died last year after spending more than four decades helping to shape the public health agenda, making a particularly huge impact on the lives of women and people with HIV. Columbia named its School of Public Health building in his honor.

I remember watching Allan in a conversation about whether children should be vaccinated, a public health issue about which he felt strongly and was clearly an expert. One of his friends, we’ll call him Jack, was arguing against vaccinations. Allan offered statistics on the millions of hospitalizations and deaths that have been averted in the last forty years because of vaccines for polio, mumps, measles, etc.

Jack then cited some research from an unnamed source on the Internet claiming that vaccines were doing more harm than good. Allan, one of the greatest public health experts of all time, would have been justified if he’d laughed. If he’d told Jack to get his information from more reliable, credible sources. If he’d repeated his arguments about the good that vaccines had done. But Allan didn’t do any of that.

He simply looked at Jack, slowed down, and replied: “I haven’t read that research. Send it to me. I’ll look at it and let you know what I think.”