Warning: this is a more than averagely rambling post.
I’ve thinking about uncertainty and not knowing. This morning I’ve been triggered into posting on this topic by Gary Lawrence Murphy: You know you don’t know or do you… The gist is that as our knowledge increases so we come to realise how much we don’t know – but those who know less are more confident.
One way to look at this is to see that society will be dominated by the confident-ignorant. Needless to say that’s a view that some disgruntled US Democrats are adopting post-election.
But wait, there may be a way out: which is to get more confident in our uncertainty. What the mystics call the wisdom of uncertainty. And to be more wary of putting our faith in those who claim to be knowledgeable. One of the best things to develop in recent years is the decline of deference and a growing willingness to challenge the experts.
I’ve talked about the iceberg metahphor before. I see a lot of thinkers, especially business thinkers, spending their time charting the visible tip in minute detail. They aim to be the masters of the known. They emphasise the metrics and the ROI, the bits that can be measured and seen.
They also tend to issue injunctions to us as if all we need to do to succeed is to mimic the visible bits of the successful organisations. As if it’s that simple. And the effect (on me at least) is simply to cause anxiety – oh my god, here’s another list of things I need to do to be succesful.
But here’s the thing: the bits of organisations they see (whether those are hard things like Walmart’s ratios or softer things like Southwest Airlines’ spirit) are probably based on things that aren’t visible.
Here’s a crude example. Donald Trump is by most measures a hugely successful businessman. But look to The Apprentice for his philosophy of business and it’s largely blustering homilies about control and power. I think Donald is successful for all sorts of reasons that even he is not aware of – and it would be a mistake to confuse his story about himself with what is really (if I can use that word) going on.
What if we are all icebergs, trying too hard to make sense of ourselves and others based on stories we tell each other about what is going on. Some of the most satisfying moments in my life recently have been silences in groups and times when I’m with people who are talking about their uncertainties, in an atmosphere where no-ones trying to offer solutions. I think these are the moments when I come close to appreciating the power of life beyond the purely rational and material.
Don’t get me wrong. There’s nothing wrong with metrics and measurements and checklists. When I learnt to fly, I was very much in favour of instruments telling me my airspeed and altitude, and equally in favour of all the other pilots having the same data. And this created a sense of structure within which the adventure of my first solo flight could happen. Of course, that first experience of flying solo was something beyond the metrics; something for which no-one could ever fully prepare me. And it seems to me that life is largely about how we handle those unknown spaces that appear amid the known.
Where the debate can get tedious is if we set up the known and unknown as alternatives where we have to choose one or the other. As if we can only be supreme rationalists or fluff-bunny-touchy-feely spiritualists. Whilst there is a certain amount of fun to be had in polemicising and ridiculing such straw men (and I know which type I prefer to stigmatise), I think the truth (again, if I can use that word) is paradoxical.
In which case, perhaps we will do better to be more honest with each other about what we don’t know – and indeed what we do. I think a lot of our problems come down to not being honest about either: we adopt rigid pseudo-certainty to cover our anxiety; or we cover our discomforts and passions with disengenous vagueness… For “we”here, perhaps I should say “I”…