On Feeling Dumb (and Useless) – 5 Reflections

My backwards relationship to ‘not-knowing’ was one of the most potent lessons I learned several years ago from one of my greatest teachers.

I was in the game (i.e.…the trap) of believing I had to know the answers to questions, I had to know how to solve problems, I had to know the steps to take before moving forward, I had to know how to do something before starting. I lived out the stories that were running in the background of my inner talk telling me that ‘knowing’ was how I would succeed and cultivate my reputation – knowing was the mark of competence.  Having expertise made me look good and therefore made me worthy of the space, time or position I took up in the world.

Not-knowing, by contrast was b-a-d. It showed weakness, ineptitude, waste and underscored the damaging narrative that told me I’m not-good-enough. I often felt dumb (and useless).

Does that resonate for you?

It’s too heavy a load. It’s unreasonable. I think it’s time to redesign our relationship to the powerful space called the unknown.

With the “needing to know” story driving us in a very unpredictable world, what’s likely to happen….

  • When we can’t ‘know’ the outcome? – we procrastinate, we delay, we avoid.
  • When we don’t ‘know’ what to do next? – we stop, we hide, we resist.
  • When don’t ‘know’ the answers? – we silence ourselves, we ignore our intuition, we freeze.

This is ingrained in us early, isn’t it? We are rewarded for answering the test questions correctly in school, we gain authority as experts when we have solutions to problems at work, we accumulate a sense of power when others do what we say. This need for answers, certainty and the acquisition of knowledge puts pressure on us and creates the illusion that knowing trumps all else.

When certainty is the requirement, we put ourselves at great risk…of becoming stagnant, rigid, even paranoid to act because certainty isn’t always possible. If the expectation we live by is to always look good by ‘knowing’ before we’re willing put ourselves in the spotlight, up on the stage or down in the arena, we toss away the chance to learn, grow and create.

Here are 5 personal reflections on ‘not-knowing’ that I’ve come to see as important in my own navigation of this unavoidable terrain. I’m curious if, and how, these speak to you…

  1. That backwards relationship to not knowing that I mentioned earlier is this: I thought I needed to know in order to take action. What’s truer is that I need to take action in order to know. Ha! Go figure. It is only through doing, stepping forward and trying things that we can ‘know’ more. It’s in taking the action itself that more becomes visible, more information can be gathered and therefore more experience can be gained. And the sooner we take that first step, the sooner we can shift in another direction if needed. The faster we learn from being “wrong”, the earlier we discover what is right.
  2. Standing at the edge of the unknown is the most generative of places to stand. Admitting that “I don’t know” is where I get to play, innovate, iterate and invent. It’s the playground for design, for experimentation, exploration and it is where possibility reigns supreme. It’s where I get to collaborate with others, hear new perspectives, question my assumptions; where honest listening can guide the way. It’s a far cry from being dumb and it has enormous utility.
  3. ‘Not-knowing’ opens possibilities to pivot and improvise around unpredictability and change. It brings a sense of relief and a spaciousness to realize that the sooner I take a first step, the faster I’ll learn what direction to move in next. It feels fluid, like freedom when I compare it to the burden of needing to be right before stepping forward.
  4. Emotions are fundamental to setting me up positively (or not) for benefiting from the power of not-knowing. Emotions such as curiosity, openness, levity, gratitude and wonder create an inner environment that allows growth and grants permission to take meaningful risks and fail for the sake of learning. In contrast, emotions like fear, doubt, resistance and resignation dominated the needing to know game. They shut me down and weigh me down, zap my energy and take the fun out of, well…everything .
  5. Fearing the worst is a mental habit that can be assuaged. Our negativity bias conditions us to think that uncertainty leads to something bad or undesirable. I want to practice believing that uncertainty is also the possibility of wonderful, delightful and undreamed-of things happening. Fear doesn’t only have to mean that I’m stepping into territory for which I’m not suited, where I’ll be denounced and judged. It can also mean that I’m stepping into space that is bigger than I’ve inhabited before and that will stretch me beyond who I’ve been up until now.

Embracing not-knowing, admittedly, doesn’t come easily or naturally to me….yet. It’s a path that I continue to journey because I see and feel its merits. When I consider the reframe, living my life with a bent towards creativity, exploration, experimentation and possibility definitely feels better and more aligned with what I care about when I compare it to the alternative.

What about you?

(BTW, that great teacher is Bob Dunham from the Institute for Generative Leadership)

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