The Wisdom of 'Not Knowing'

Experiencing the value of 'not knowing'.

Posted Sep 30, 2013

"I know a thing or two about a thing or two." ~Robert DeNiro, "This Boy's Life"

In this era of resumes and bios, we face the challenge of marketing ourselves with a strange navigation of confidence and modesty. The things we know connect us to other knowers. The things we don't know we package as things we strategically choose to not know or things we will soon find out. Not knowing feels not okay. We feel disconnected and alone. When we sit with this rawness of not knowing we are faced with tough choices. We are vulnerable.

  • This job description requires a skill that I do not know. Do I apply anyway?
  • I feel a deep desire to make art but I've never learned how to draw. Can I call myself an artist?
  • I need to start marketing my expertise but I haven't even had my first client. Am I a fraud?
  • I want to hang out with those people but I don't know how to dress or act like they do. Would they accept me anyway?

And then we stumble across something revelatory. At exactly the right moment, we receive a message we've longed to hear. That it's all going to be okay. That we don't have to know. That someone else doesn't know too, and they succeeded in spite of it. Or because of it. The freedom of finally realizing that we only have so much time, so much energy, and so much capacity to take it all in. We triumphantly slough away the burden of not knowing to reveal a new layer that's fresh with possibility.

What was it that we stumbled upon? It was that somebody who possessed the confidence to make limitation and imperfection seem acceptable. Someone who put a spin on not knowing and made good enough seem glamorous. The esteemed professor who revealed he doesn't know the answer but will try to find out for tomorrow. The acclaimed landscape painter who readily admits she can't do portraits. The mentors who came before us—learned the hard way—that the ego's stubborn knowingness stifles our creative potential.

They became experts at some things because they were willing to not know others. We admire them not only for what they know, but for their raw honesty in revealing what they don't. Not knowing takes courage and revealing it is powerful. We can each profess that wisdom. That this is good enough for now—and maybe that's good enough for forever. I bet we'll learn a lot more that way.


Does glamorizing 'not knowing' seem counterintiuitive to progress? Check out this provocative short video with so-called backwards advice by designer Mig Reyes: Make Ugly Things