Don’t Stop At the Edge of Your Knowledge
We are not rewarded for not knowing, write veteran consultants Steven D’Souza and Diana Renner in their fascinating book Not Knowing. We are not expected to not know. People look for certainty in their leaders. But beyond the expectations of others, there is our own comfort, the authors explain: not knowing is uncomfortable, and it’s better to know. And when you don’t know, the answer, for the sake of ourselves or for the sake of those who believe in us, is to fake it. We pretend to know.
Another danger of the tyranny of certainty is, according to the authors, to have unwavering faith in the experts. For 1,400 years, the ancient Greek physician Galen of Pergamon was the ultimate authority in medicine; it wasn’t until the mid-16th century that Flemish physician Andreas Vesalius finally dared to question Galen, whose mistakes and discrepancies should have been apparent to all by that time (the authors note that a medical school professor holding up a human heart after a dissection would comment on the three ventricles as described by Galen, although there were clearly four in the heart he was holding.
In truth, the authors explain in the second part of Not Knowing, “darkness illuminates.” D’Souza and Renner tell the story of the tragic Burke and Wills expedition in Australia. Robert Burke and William Wills were the first men to cross the continent but died of starvation on their way back home. They died of starvation despite the fact that the Aborigines in the area had thrived for thousands of years and did everything they could to help the white men. But Burke and Wills didn’t want their help; they didn’t, in their opinion, need the people whom they considered savages to tell them what to do to survive.
Burke and Wills died staying at what the authors call “the edge” of their knowledge, refusing to go no further. It is the willingness to not stop at the edge that allows artists to create, scientists to discover and entrepreneurs to launch their enterprises. How does one find the value in the unknown, especially when in so many domains — areas such as business, politics or even social situations — not knowing is viewed as a weakness or a barrier?
The answer lies in what the authors call “negative capability.” This is the ability to “negate” rather than add: the ability to clear the mind rather than fill it. “This idea of negative capability,” the authors write, “is powerful because it captures the need for making space in the mind to allow new thought to take root. It clears the mind of existing knowledge, clichés or existing assumptions.” The concept also emphasizes that clearing the mind is as much a “capability” as filling it. Building on academic research, the authors note that silence, patience, doubt and humility are all examples of negative capabilities.
Empty Your Cup
In the final section of their book, the authors group negative capabilities under four headings (each earning a separate chapter):“empty your cup,” “close your eyes to see,” “leap in the dark” and “delight in the unknown.”
“Empty your cup” is a metaphor for seeking to make room in a mind that is filled with knowledge. Experts are rarely revolutionaries because their minds are already filled with what they think they need to know. Thus, it was a non-banker who revolutionized the industry with microbanks. Grameen Bank founder Mohammad Yunus didn’t know that it was wrong to do what he was doing, including lending to the poor instead of the rich and focusing on women instead of men. If his cup had been full, he would have known and abided by the rules, and never launched the microbank revolution that made him famous.
“Close your eyes to see,” is the art of observing, listening and questioning. Improvising, experimenting and embracing mistakes are some of the activities associated with “leap in the dark.” Finally, the authors encourage readers to “delight in the unknown” by, among other ideas, unleashing their curiosity and creativity and not being afraid of foolishness and play.
A learned mix of academic studies and scores of compelling stories from a wide variety of domains, this brilliant, inspiring book will have readers leaving their desks (figuratively, one hopes), finding their way to the edges of their own world, closing their eyes and opening their minds, and waiting for the ideas and insights that will come from “not knowing.”