I have been thinking a lot recently about the benefits of not pretending to know stuff, of putting oneself consciously at a place of not knowing in order to be more open to explore what is possible. This is an attempt to write this down. The thinking is not finished and needs much more refinement, so please bear with me – and share your own reflections this might evoke in the comments.
The inspiration for this has come from different directions. Firstly, Dave Snowden introduced a new way of looking at the central domain of Cynefin that used to be called ‘disorder’ earlier this year. It is now called ‘confused/aporetic’, with aporetic being the mentioned state of putting oneself consciously at a point of not knowing. The second influence was a piece on education Nitzan Hermon asked me to comment on, which has unfortunately not been published yet – but he allowed me to use some quotes from it in this post. Finally, I listened to a very inspiring episode of the On The Edge podcast, in which Roland Harwood interviews Steve Xoh, an artist who works a lot with using not knowing (or rather aporia) in a playful way – and a subsequent very inspiring chat with Steve.
Education: a journey from not knowing to having to know
As young children, our minds are wide open to learning. Many, if not most of the things we encounter each day are new. Only when we grow older, we start to think we should know stuff. This is strongly encouraged by our society, culture, and the way we educate our children. At school, we are rewarded for knowing things during exams, not for asking questions or saying ‘I don’t know’.
The educational pursuit is well-intentioned, but its foundation is a reliance on a monolithic view of the world. It is deterministic in knowledge and allows for little true diversity. It puts blinders on the existence of individuated experience and the range of possible futures.Nitzan Hermon
Yet, we cannot understand the world and all that is happening by all of us buying into a single, monolithic view of how things work. Large parts of how the world works are fundamentally unknowable. While research has uncovered incredible amounts of knowledge, it remains incapable of predicting natural phenomena like the weather for a significant amount of time. Let alone predicting human behaviour. And that is not due to a lack of trying, but because of the nature of many natural processes, including human behaviour and relationship. It is, in principle, impossible to predict those precisely over longer periods of time.
In this context, knowing becomes a disadvantage. Knowing comes with a price, it shuts down alternatives.
Knowing comes with a price. It asks to freeze reality, write scripts, roles, and goals for ourselves, and the spaces we meet, learn, and work. It asks for solutions to be designed, put in place, and stay in their original design, incrementally adapted for externalities.Nitzan Hermon
This is compounded by the times we live in. The times are changing. Knowing something was of much higher value when we lived in a world in which a larger share of value creation was dominated by repeatable tasks, by producing something. Nowadays, all tasks that are repeatable, all knowledge that can be written down, reproduced, re-used, will be taken over by machines sooner or later. What will not be taken over are the tasks that require us to navigate the unknowable, uncertain environment of human relations and complex ecologies of mind.
… we forget that linear, efficient thinking operates within the world of limited material. If I were an artisan, I had limited material; using that material wisely would have a felt effect on my studio. But the modern knowledge worker lives in a world of abundance. And in abundance, it is context – masked as a question, inquiry, ways of thinking – which is scarce.Nitzan Hermon
The map is not the territory …
Knowledge is always abstraction, taken away from a specific context. All the knowledge we accumulate builds up our mental models of how the world works. Yet they are just models, maps that help us navigate reality without spending too much cognitive energy.
If we think about it, our lives essentially start at a place of not knowing – we don’t have a lot of knowledge encoded in our genes. When we are born, or even before, our senses start exploring. Sounds, light and shapes, touch, smell, things come into focus. Sensory experiences first create and later evoke memories. Once this tapestry of experiences is shaped, sensory inputs don’t fall on a blank sheet anymore and are always interpreted in the light of things experienced earlier. This is an important thing to be aware of. Some neuroscientists even think that our brain only processes sensory inputs when they are different from what the brain predicted it would receive while ignoring the rest.
Hence, knowing takes us away from the territory and puts us on a map that we have created in our minds. That is not a bad thing per se, as our big brains need to save energy. It becomes a bad thing if we confuse the map with the territory – if we think what we know actually represent reality.
Understanding the way our brains work also imply, however, that we are only able to put ourselves at a place of not knowing to a limited extend. Hence, a diversity of view points that are loosely held are always better than a homogenous, strongly held and enforced world view. More to ponder about here …
A beginner’s mind and the Art of not Knowing
To function well in this world, we need to become better at not knowing, at being at a loss. I think that is what is often referred to as a beginner’s mind. This allows us to start any exploration from the territory, rather than the map.
Not knowing is difficult. It is uncomfortable. Not knowing often makes us talk too much, somehow trying to paint over the fact that we don’t know. Pretend we do. Yet if we allow for the silence and for the discomfort it creates, something creative can emerge. In the podcast episode referenced above, Steve Xoh talks about a time when he ran dialogue exercises in a corporate setting and recounts that particularly the moments of silence proved to be very powerful:
… it was always in those moments of sitting in a discomfort for a little bit longer than normal that something new emerges. And particularly sitting in a discomfort of disagreement and difference and confusion, and all of those things, something different always emerged.Steve Xoh
Creativity exists in unknowing. How can we be playful with not knowing? How can this lead to creativity, new ideas, innovation?
As humans, we have a natural tendency to favour the concrete, the structured, the tangible, the predictable. We prefer the certainty of an imaginary structure to the ambiguity of reality. We are creating scripts that we can repeat, based on past experiences. Yet in reality, there is no script that we can repeat and even if we did have a script, we have never lived in this very moment before. Trusting blindly in such a script is problematic, to say the least.
Unknowing helps us to let go of scripts and to be creative, to improvise our way through the ever-new realities we are facing.
That is not to say that structures are completely useless. We need a certain amount of certainty and predictability in order not to overwhelm our brains. That limited cognitive capacity is why we create such structures, both internally in the way we make sense of the world, as well as in society, in the way we interact and relate to each other. Our big brains need to conserve energy.
It is a fine balance to know when to stick to the structure in order to reduce cognitive load and when to let go of it and improvise because the structure is inadequately adapted to the actual situation we face. That puts us in a constant tension.
… the moment we start to believe something as concrete we lose the ability to wonder, to imagine. And that’s the tension that I talk about, between creativity and the human condition. Creativity is our imaginations pulling towards the infinite and the amorphous and the weird and the wonderful; the human condition is our logic, our reason pulling towards the concrete and tangible and that tangible is always so much more appetising.Steve Xoh
The concrete and tangible has taken over in our current world. Best practices are abundant, improvisation is frowned upon. Standard operating procedures and scripted algorithms are lauded, human intuition looked down at, seen as biased.
I think this is a big part of the reason why we are stuck; why we are facing multiple social, environmental and spiritual crises; why we do not seem to be able to respond to a changing climate, spiralling inequality and radicalisation.
We have the re-learn how we can move ourselves towards a place of not knowing. Not knowing allows us to wonder more, allows us to be curious. Not knowing as first step to shake the stage, to loosen some constraints and make new and different things possible. It puts us back on the territory of reality, away from the maps we have built up and we constantly confuse with reality. Not knowing as action; opening up more possibilities to act. Yet, how do we act when we don’t know what to do? This is a question I want to explore further.
Cynefin and Aporia: when not knowing is useful
I don’t want to say in any way that knowing stuff is not useful. On the contrary, it is immensely important to know, for example, how to grow food, how to build houses, how to keep them warm, how to cure our diseases and so on. Yet the knowledge and expertise we have internalised shapes the way we approach a problem. If we are an expert in economics, we tend to look at everything as an economic problem. If we are ecologists, the nature and ecological systems become the point of reference. Those are the maps we use to orient ourselves on the complex territory of reality. It might be stating the obvious, but these maps are generally not a very accurate representation of the problems we are facing. Particularly because reality does not happen in a single context. In the real world, problems are always an entanglement of multiple contexts. We cannot fix poverty by only looking at the economy, we also need to take into account culture, education, politics, technology and so on. We cannot fix climate change by only looking at shifting to electric cars or avoiding single-use plastic, we also need to look at broader consumption patters, mobility patterns, resource use, justice, etc. This links back to the idea of Warm Data I wrote about earlier.
So the question is: When is putting ourselves in a position of not knowing useful? I would say it is always a good starting point as it gives us an open mind to sense what kind of situation we are facing and how the situation might be influenced by different contexts. The latest iteration of the Cynefin framework adds some very useful ideas and practices to this. First of all, the central domain of Cynefin has been renamed to Confused/Aporia. Confused means quite literally that we are not aware or do not care what kind of problem we are facing, which leads to all kinds of problems. Aporia, in contrast, means that we are putting ourselves consciously at a loss, into a position of not knowing, which allows us to approach a situation with an open mind. Dave Snowden describes a number of moves on how we can induce this aporetic state and also a number of pathways out of it. The essence of it is that it is always good to start from a place of not knowing, with a beginner’s mind and then decide whether best practice (the clear domain) or expert knowledge (the complicated domain) is useful or if we need to probe a situation to attempt to sense and shift patterns (the complex domain).
More to come … I still have a lot of questions around this. I’d appreciate if you could share some of your reflections this triggered in the comments below.
Featured image: cygnets on Bolam Lake (own photo)