“Creativity consists largely of rearranging what we know in order to find out what we do not know. 

Hence, to think creatively, we must be able to look afresh at what we normally take for granted.” 

– George Kneller

An old philosophy professor of mine used to say something that has stayed with me through the years — “There is something of the quarry in the chase.” This saying comes from an old hunter’s adage, and can be paraphrased as “when you are searching for something, it helps to put yourself in it’s place.” For a hunter, this would mean thinking like your quarry (Where would a fox hide? How does a deer react when startled?). For coaches and teachers, it means thinking like a student.

The underlying sentiment is that there is a benefit to opening ourselves to the uncertainty of different viewpoints, both for our own personal growth and development and in our interactions with others. For instance, have you ever been in a meeting where one person at the table believed they had all the right answers from the start? How productive was that meeting. I’ve found that there is nothing that shuts down creativity and productive dialogue faster than one person who thinks they know better.

Forget What You Think You Know

One of the best ways to learn is to wipe the mental slate clean and act as though we know nothing. I recently came across a piece of wisdom from communication guru Mark Waldman that ties in to this idea. Waldman writes,

Knowing that our beliefs are partial, incomplete, and partly false is enough to pull us into the present moment, where we can meet each other – and ourselves – without preconceptions or prejudice. Being a strong “believer” actually separates us from others, especially those who hold different beliefs.
Stay present and leave room for uncertainty. It’s good for your brain.

As a coach and mentor, I find this idea uniquely powerful. Instead of getting stuck in what we think we know, we can open ourselves to a world of possibilities and inspiration by leaving room for uncertainty.

Uncertainty Creates Room for Growth

On a personal level, staying open to new ideas can feel vulnerable. Especially for those of us with years of experience and achievement in our fields, it can seem counter-intuitive to admit that we still don’t have all the answers. However vulnerable it might make us feel, uncertainty actually has the opposite effect — it empowers us to continue to grow and change. Clinging to old beliefs and old ways of doing things makes us hard, unyielding, fossilized, whereas being open to growth keeps us fresh, flexible, and vital.

There’s neuroscience that backs this up: declarative statements don’t require much of our brains beyond memory retrieval, but actively asking questions engages multiple areas of our brains. Certainty closes our mind. Uncertainty opens it. Entrepreneurship blogger Nate Ginsburg recently published a piece on the benefits of uncertainty in which he asserts,

While uncertainty can absolutely be unsettling, it doesn’t have to be. For if you embrace it, these moments are prime for the most personal growth, opportunity and excitement.

As with many things that help us grow, there is a period of discomfort involved with embracing uncertainty. But if we can learn to be comfortable in the unknown, imagine the opportunities we can create for ourselves and others!

Uncertainty Creates a Productive Dialogue

Speaking of others, the benefits of uncertainty don’t only apply to ourselves — they also have a major impact on our ability to communicate effectively with those around us. As in the example of the meeting that is monopolized by someone with a fixed mental position, certainty alienates others and eliminates their point of view from the equation. By contrast, uncertainty, or the lack of a declarative position, engages and involves others. It brings their perspective into play and enables a true dialogue.

I see this often in my coaching and mentoring practice. Those who take a directive approach and only give instructional feedback create a leader-follower paradigm that shuts down creative problem solving and collaboration. It is only through putting “something of the quarry in the chase” that a coach or mentor can truly understand the perspective of those they are trying to help. By thinking through problems and strategies with others, instead of for them, we can embrace the benefits of uncertainty and grow together towards mutual goals and successes.

So the next time you find yourself asserting an absolute truth, take a step back and ask yourself “what about my beliefs might be incomplete or partly false?” Allow the light of uncertainty to penetrate your thinking and open your mind to a world of exciting possibilities.

How do you stay open to new ideas and re-examine old ones? Share your thoughts by tweeting @Ace_Wagner!