Friday, March 21, 2014

The Virtue of Not Knowing

My New Year’s resolutions are still tacked to the wall over my desk. It’s a list of things I want to learn, to improve and to embody. I’ve learned over the years to state my resolutions as positive rather than negative. I say, “Eat well and exercise” rather than “lose weight”. I challenge myself to “speak with kindness” rather than “don’t gossip”. But each year I want to learn more and know more-- about more things.

But last week I read an article in the Harvard Business Review about not knowing more. It recommended a new corporate position and role for modern companies: a Chief Ignorance Officer. My first reaction was that this must be a spoof, a way to make a point about  Dilbert-ish corporate life. But no. David Gray, a Boston consultant, was serious about ignorance.

The article advocated for the importance of true ignorance, which means a lack of knowledge. He explained why not knowing is a value for business strategy and decision making.

Something hit home. To allow oneself to not know and to willingly choose not knowing felt refreshing and brave. The Business Review article described the values of embracing ignorance or “nescience”, which is a nicer sounding word. By saying, “I don’t know” on a regular basis an organization can defer decision-making and not rush to judgment or to expensive misguided tactics. It can also permit trials and experiments.

This idea of the Chief Ignorance Officer got me rethinking my New Year’s resolutions. You can try this too. Try saying “I don’t know” ten times today. You’ll feel both the anxiety and the split second of peace that not knowing provides.

One of the problems of living in an information-saturated time is that information gathering can become addictive and knowing a lot of stuff can begin to seem like power. Ignorance allows us to go toward things that scare us and saying “I don’t know” is a kind of intellectual Aikido, the martial art that uses the attacker’s own momentum to undo him. Saying, “I don’t know,” allows you to learn.
There is the Buddhist teaching story of the monk who offers his know-it-all student a cup of tea and then pours and pours into his astonished student’s overflowing cup. His point: only an empty mind can receive knowledge and insight. But to let ignorance show, to reveal ourselves incomplete and empty? In a beautiful poem by Teilhard de Chardin are these lines: Give our Lord the benefit of believing that his hand is leading you. Accept the anxiety of feeling yourself in suspense and incomplete. It’s a risk to accept that much anxiety. We’d rather salve it with being, doing and especially knowing more.

I had a taste of this many years ago in a college class. We were studying history but instead of learning dates and facts the class focused on what a historian must ask. The final exam consisted of ten questions but they were not questions that the professor required us to answer. Instead, we had to write ten questions that hadn’t yet been asked and describe the implications of asking them.

This approach applies to our life in recovery as well.  Maybe “Huh?” isn’t exactly a new slogan but “I don’t know” could be a personal mantra. In a world in which being right and knowing a lot count as virtues, it takes real courage to NOT know it all. .

No comments: