Sitting with not knowing

Posted on Thursday, October 11, 2018

Author: Jacob Berkowitz

ISSP Writer in Residence, Author and Performer

When it's part of a dedicated process of discovery, it turns out there's great wisdom in the words: I don't know. In disciplines, from medicine to the military, and government policy-making to academia and science writing, sitting with not knowing is essential to success.

I've found one of the most difficult places to be in a creative project is in the critical zone of not knowing.

I (and I think I can say we) deeply want the emotional security of knowing. We want to know exactly what we're doing; the end point of what we're researching; the solution to the problem; the all-powerful right answer (even if it isn't).

When I was writing The Stardust Revolution, a complex, deeply multidisciplinary non-fiction science book, there was rarely a week that went by when on an afternoon at about 2:30 I wanted to flee my office. Not just get up and saunter out. Flee.

Intellectually, I was lost. My desk and the surrounding floor were covered with small piles of penned notes, typed riffs, reference books and science articles. I felt adrift in a mulligatawny sea of information in which I saw no clear pattern. It often felt overwhelming, and my sparking amygdala counseled that I do anything but hold the course in this state of not knowing. (At one point I called an accomplished fellow writer to ask her advice. On the other end of the phone, she laughed: If you could see my office you wouldn't be asking me!)

I learned to coach myself through these bouts of solitary not-knowing terror. In fact, I came to see that not only was this not knowing part of the process, it was the golden part. Only by holding myself in this space of not knowing, of gradually accumulating bits of information, insight and connection, could I come to a new place of seeing—and knowing.

Recently, I experienced this not-knowing feeling in a group setting and was struck by the similarities and differences. I was working on a foresight exercise with a group of summer student futurists at Policy Horizons Canada, discussing the components for a new project.

Foresight uses a series of process, analytical and research tools to see possible rather than probable or preferred futures. It's a discipline now in demand by government policy-makers and corporate executives alike. At the core of the foresight process is the ability to let go of assumptions about the predicted future (the one most people think will happen) and get into the zone of not knowing so that alternate possibilities can potentially be seen.

When I left the meeting, I realized that I felt a milder and different version of my book research unease. The difference was that I was sitting with unknowing as part of a group. It's one thing to face not knowing in isolation, another when you're seen not to know by colleagues. In this social context, there's an extra-strong ego pull to assert that I know. After all, we don't award raises, prizes and university degrees for not knowing the answer, but for being in command of the facts, for knowing the right answer; knowing it now.

Yet, in so many disciplines, from medicine to the military, and government policy-making to corporate strategizing and academia and writing, sitting with not knowing is essential to success.

The emotional energy to bolt away from not knowing, ironically, keeps us from actually knowing. The physician who jumps to a diagnosis for fear of saying "I don't know", the general who orders an attack to be decisive, or the policy-maker who demands an immediate answer, all trade the immediate illusion of control in favour of the insight that comes from sitting with not knowing.

When it's part of a dedicated process of discovery, it turns out there's great wisdom in the words: I don't know.

Back to top