Remember Wrong to Remember Right

Using Anki flashcards has made me realize a bug in my brain: I prefer remembering things vaguely but not incorrectly, as opposed to remembering them potentially incorrectly but in a concrete way. Anki forces me out of this preference for vagueness in a very helpful way.

For example, right now I have an Anki card for remembering what DomainKeys Identified Mail (DKIM) is. The flashcard is as follows:

  • Front: What does DKIM do?
  • Back: Publishes a public key to verify that an e-mail was actually sent from a domain.

Is this definition 100% correct? I’m not sure! I skimmed the Wikipedia page, and that definition is roughly what I understand DKIM to be.

When creating the flashcard I realized I had this sense of anxiety: “what if this precise definition isn’t correct?”

Before Anki I would have stored DKIM in my brain as “a thing related to mail security.” That’s not wrong, but also it doesn’t really tell you anything or let you use the information in a helpful way. That memory’s contribution to any discussion is basically “oh yeah, I’ve heard of that.”

I’ve always floundered at technical interviews and discussions. I suspect it’s in part because of this hesitation to make definitions concrete in fear of being slightly incorrect.

The enlightening thing about forcing yourself to write down a definition, even if it’s slightly wrong, is that you have something to correct!

Before Anki, if I learned something new about DKIM my definition would have remained unchanged—there’s nothing to correct if details don’t matter! DKIM would still be “thing that is related to e-mail security.” But now with an explicit Anki definition, I can actually update my understanding and update the Anki card.

Figuring this out felt very surprising—that a fear of being wrong could change how I store memories seemed bizarre.

I now suspect that letting yourself be wrong is a core piece of actually remembering things correctly. You can’t know if you’re right if you never let yourself be wrong.


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