What to do when you don’t know (and why it’s not so scary as you think)

From the time we start school around the age of five, we learn very quickly that there’s only one right answer: 2 + 2 = 4.  And it pays to know what it is. Our identity gets increasingly wrapped up in knowing the right answer and we’re conditioned by society that we’re just supposed to know, in no uncertain terms, everything from what career to choose and who to marry, to what to say to in a difficult conversation with a partner or what’s going to happen in the board meeting.

And even though we live in the most uncertain, unpredictable time in the history of mankind ever, nobody tells us that it’s okay to not know. So we all walk around pretending that we do know and hoping we won’t get busted.

As usual, Dilbert knows what I’m talking about.

(Just to be clear, I’m not talking about fact-based knowledge. When the CFO gets on an earnings call with analysts, he better know what the current financials are — but he doesn’t have to know where the economy is going to be in nine months and exactly how that will affect the company’s sales in Asia. We want our doctor to know how to treat a common condition — but she doesn’t have to know exactly the cause of a rare combination of symptoms and the surefire way to treat them.)

The thing is, being in a place where we think we should know spits us out of the present moment. To be wholly present, we have to be willing to step into the unknown, where we’re not trying to control our future based on past experiences. That’s when we plug into the big database in the sky, get access to Infinite Intelligence. That’s what happened with Einstein: after he had his flash of insight into the theory of relativity, he then had to go back and learn the math to explain what he intuitively understood.

So here are some things I know about “not knowing:”

  • Slow down and shut up. Ask the universe/God/whatever higher power you believe in for guidance — and then pay attention. The answer might come in a song, a movie, a book or an old friend that you haven’t seen for awhile.
  • Get used to the feeling of unfamiliar. Our body craves the adventure of the unknown. A photographer friend says he loves that feeling of butterflies in his stomach when he’s on a shoot that tells him: “I’m about to do something creative.”
  • Acknowledge what you do and don’t know. Even the most prickly conversation will go better if you say: “Here’s what I know based on the information I have. You have different information than I do so I’m curious to hear your point of view.”

It’s not “all or nothing.” You don’t know have to know every single step on the path before taking action. In fact, you can just get excited about finding out what the next step is.

Really, it’s okay to not know.