The Power of Uncertainty and Not Knowing

There’s a lot of talk about addiction these days: to drugs, alcohol, sex, porn, coffee, food, cigarettes. You name it, if it makes you feel good, you’re addicted.

But here’s a couple of other addictive “circumstances” we don’t talk about: certainty and knowing. If there are a couple of things we all crave for, it’s assurance and understanding.

Western culture in particular thrives on these two qualities. We get paid for having them and punished for not. Certainty and knowing are the foundations of our most valued institutions: education, medicine, law, justice, business, broadcasting, politics, marketing, science, religion…[add your favourite here].

Everyone claims to know what’s good, bad, right, wrong, best, worst, cheapest, stylish, in, out, needed, not needed, true, false, left, right, etc, etc. And everyone’s certain the sun’s going to rise, the economy’s got to grow, the day after today is tomorrow, the day before is yesterday, particular rights are sacrosanct, some will go to heaven, some to hell, there is a God or there is no such thing. Ad infinitum.

But how certain can we be about what we know and how do we know what’s certain? Natural disasters, terrorism and unforeseen crises show us we can seldom be sure of anything.

Do you think your GP knows what’s wrong with you? I never think mine does. I don’t mean that as a criticism; he’s a great doctor. But his job is not to know what’s wrong, it’s to make an educated guess. I had a sore ear last week and, when he looked in it, he didn’t say, “I know it’s allergy.” He said, “It looks like allergy. We’ll try some eardrops and come back if it hasn’t settled down in five days.”

Religious people, especially leaders, claim to know there’s a God, heaven, what’s a sin, what’s not and so on. But they don’t know. They may believe it, but belief is not knowledge, it’s “an acceptance that something exists or is true, especially one without proof.” (Apple Dictionary).

Even in some areas of science, particularly quantum physics and evolution, scientists may say they know how quantum particles behave or how the universe began, but again, they can only believe in a theory based on the perception of the human brain. How the world works can only be a mystery, because we can only subjectively experience it.

I have always said the best job in the world must be being a meteorologist — who else gets paid so much to get things wrong so often? And yet a weather forecaster rarely says, “We don’t really know what the weather’s going to be like tomorrow, but it could be sunny.” Rather they usually give the forecast like they know for sure.

With the illusion of knowing comes the perception of certainty. We live our lives assuming things will be as we predict them to be. We assume that we’ll wake up in the morning and go to work; that our kids will be straight; that the aeroplane will be on time; that the internet will work. Then, when our assumptions turn out to be wrong, we rage, blame, stress and get upset.

Admitting to not knowing or acknowledging uncertainty are uncomfortable spaces. We worry, get anxious, get scared. So we do everything in our power to know as much as we can and to avoid uncertainty by strategising, planning and scheming. Our days, our weeks, our relationships, our careers, our social policies, our lives.

Sir Ken Robinson said something interesting in an interview once. He said he’d never planned his career; he’d just chosen between different opportunities as they presented themselves and that he believed many successful people do the same. I resonated with that. I have never planned my career; in fact I seldom make plans. The only plans I really make are social and business appointments and, I confess as those who know me will attest, I can be pretty anal when those plans change, especially if suddenly or without my knowledge.

But, when I have to plan a project or a strategic process, I’m usually reluctant and cynical. My definition of a plan is something you look back on to see what you didn’t do. I stand by that definition because, of all the things I’ve been involved in planning, nothing has ever gone to plan.

You may be thinking, but if nobody planned, nothing would ever get done. I would reframe that by saying, if nobody had intentions nothing would ever get done. Intention, defined, includes planning, but interestingly, in logic, intentions are “conceptions formed by directing the mind towards an object.” The word’s origin is late Middle English, from Old French entencion, from Latin intentio(n-), meaning ‘stretching’ or ‘purpose’.

So I’ve always, or nearly always, had intentions: to be successful, happy, reasonably wealthy, generous, respectful and respected, authentic and aware. But I’ve never planned to do things to achieve them. They’ve all happened, but I haven’t known how and I was never certain I’d achieve them. There have been times when I’ve felt I’ve lost my purpose, or I’m not feeling stretched, but I’ve made some bad decisions when I’ve tried to recapture certainty. I think I’ve now learned to be still in the uncertainty of it all and wait.

There’s a therapeutic idea that confusion is a very useful state of mind, because you’re open to all opportunities, as Sir Ken spoke of. Being certain, however, can mean you miss opportunities, because you’re so focussed on one thing. That’s the power of uncertainty: it leaves you open to opportunity.

It’s interesting that certainty has two antonyms, possibility and impossibility. This suggests another power of uncertainty: being open to possibility. Uncertainty can also render impossible unwanted outcomes. If you are uncertain about failing, for example, you may just make failure impossible.

But what is the power of not knowing? For me it is the gateway to freedom. When we don’t know about things we don’t judge or make assumptions, we invite curiosity, creativity and authenticity into our world. We are free to reframe, reinvent, reimagine and re-create. When we don’t know about people, we are free to find out about ourselves, to marvel at our diversity and to build relationships built on wholeheartedness, respect and trust.

Uncertainty and not knowing are two things we are conditioned to fear and avoid. The question is though, by steering clear of them, what are we missing out on?

Power, Prejudice, and Paradox

I’ve recently changed how I describe myself or, more accurately, my experience. I now talk about “my paradoxical experience as a queer, caucasian, cisgender man with unique function (disability).”

indecision-967718-mEven doing this is paradoxical, given I argued the point in 2012 at TEDxAuckland that we need to decay labels to reveal diversity. But I’m doing it to explain a phenomenon of power, privilege and paradox, rather than to label myself.

Power and privilege have long been part of the politics of diversity and discrimination. Recently I heard another diversity expert, Leslie Hawthorne, encourage those with privilege to raise awareness of it by, for example, not using the word “lame” to describe something that is bad or stupid, because you are implying that people who can’t walk are bad or stupid.

There has also been the story of Ijeoma Oluo, a woman of colour, who experienced an instant reduction in racial slurs when she changed her Twitter profile picture to one that made her look caucasian.

These examples seem to me to slightly simplify the understanding of power and privilege — change a word here, look a bit different there. I think there are more complex subtleties at work, like context, subjectivity and objectivity, that paint a broader, more complex picture of power and privilege.

So back to me — let’s deconstruct those labels (or decay them) in terms of power and privilege (I’ll use P&P to save keystrokes).

  • Queer — not heterosexual (but not obviously so) — P&P comparatively low
  • Caucasian — not of colour — P&P unquestionably high
  • Cisgender — not transgender — P&P unquestionably high
  • Man — not woman — P&P unquestionably high
  • Unique function (disabled) — not non-disabled — P&P unquestionably low

So the question becomes, where do I sit in terms of P&P? We could do simple maths: 3 high P&P, only 2 low, ergo I have +1 P&P.

More complex maths — let’s give more points to unquestionably (2) than comparatively (1): -1+2+2+2-2=+3 — so I have +3 P&P? Or do I have +6 P&P as well as -3 P&P?

Of course this is where the paradox and complexity comes in, as well as context, subjectivity and objectivity (and other things I haven’t thought of but probably will do later). Let’s do some more decaying…

Context: As I said at TEDxAuckland, but to reframe it slightly, if I’m in a room of cisgender, caucasian men, they will not see my +6 P&P. They will see and/or sense my -3 P&P, feel awkward, discount me and I will lack P&P.

If, however, I’m in a room of indigenous, transgender and/or queer disabled people, chances are my +6 P&P will become very noticeable and my -3 P&P won’t be enough to save me. There goes my P&P. Again.

Similarly, if I’m in a recognised leadership role or on stage talking about P&P to a TEDx audience, I’ll have more of it than if I’m a stranger in the street.

Subjectivity: This works two ways. 1. The more people know me (i.e. the more subjective their experience of me), the more relative P&P I will have. They’re looking past the labels and seeing me for who I really am. 2. The more P&P I feel I have in different contexts, and the more I am aware of the behaviours and language that are commonly understood in the situation, the less threatening my perceived lack or abundance of P&P is likely to be.

Objectivity: I’ll refer back to Leslie Hawthorne, who recounted a story of an orchestra, which lacked female members. On becoming aware of this, “blind” (I’m not sure if that’s offensive or not to people who can’t see) auditions were held, so that decision-makers couldn’t tell the gender of the auditioning person.

Within a few years, female members had increased several-fold. So, ensuring some objectivity around P&P can decrease its impact.

So, where are we? Well, if you’re anything like me you’re likely in some state of confusion and uncertainty which, I would hazard to say, is a very good state from which to tackle diversity, not to mention leadership, complexity and change. Our human need to be sure and certain and to know the answers are precisely what leads us astray in the world, a world which is nothing like what we would like it to be.

In “A Short History of Stupid” by Helen Razer and Bernard Keane, Razer observes:

When you elevate lived experience to centrality in your socio- political critique and politics, you delegitimise the contribution to debate from other perspectives; if the traditional logical fallacy is appeal to authority, since the 1990s appeal to experience has come to rival it, creating a hierarchy of analysis with lived experience at the apex of authenticity. Moreover, as the phrase ‘check your privilege’ implies, it is not merely that a non- experience- based contribution to a discussion lacks legitimacy, the possession of other forms of experience creates an illegitimacy that is impossible to overcome: the scoring systems used to allocate ‘privilege points’ can be neatly flipped into a ‘how illegitimate is your opinion’ scale, depending on the colour of your skin, your sexual preference, your income and your gender. The result is a further fragmentation of public debate on issues, with fewer voices heard and greater unanimity among those voices given the imposition of dominant narratives even within sub- groups. The result is also a lesser willingness among generalists, and particularly media practitioners, to genuinely engage on policy issues arising from or including identity politics, for fear of being labelled racist/misogynist/homophobic/middle class/transgenderphobic/ableist/fattist/perpetrators of rape culture. They live in fear of fatally missing some critical nuance that would reveal them as inauthentic, or worse.

I agree. I don’t see myself (or anyone else) as absolutely either owning or lacking P&P — I don’t think it’s a useful paradigm. Sometimes we have, it sometimes we don’t. Sometimes we can influence it, sometimes we can’t. Sometimes we’re prepared, sometimes we’re not. Sorry kids, it’s messy out there.

And — hate to say it — it’s getting messier.

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