The Joy (and Terror) of Not Knowing

Sometimes your friends can be absolute pains. Here I am, late on a Sunday night, with a half-finished blog post, a glass of red wine in me and my twitter friend advising me to get my blog post finished. All right, already. Geez! 🙂

Thank goodness for friends like that.

There’s a term I recently encountered in the context of childrens’ education, but it’s a term I think has wider applicability. It’s JONK – the joy of not knowing. The idea is that not knowing something is not a reason to feel shame and defensiveness, as if exposing a weakness in your unassailable body of learning. You shouldn’t feel like a failure for being stumped or ignorant. Rather, it presents the much-relished prospect of embarking on an exciting research adventure. There is real satisfaction to be gained from not knowing and then trying to find out or learn what you don’t know. In fact, it’s the foundation of a growth mind set.

When we get to adulthood, though, where careers, reputations, livelihoods and contractual deadlines are at stake, you could be forgiven for reacting with both inner joy at not knowing something, because you get to follow your curiosity in a quest to find out, but also a sense of terror, because the world and it’s expectations are not configured for forgiveness if, at the end of your research and enquiries, you still don’t know. The fact that some things are hard to learn or, indeed, unknowable isn’t an acceptable explanation. No wonder we lose some of the joy of not knowing.

So, we resign ourselves to an unstable duality. Not knowing evokes emotional reactions that are at one and the same time both ecstatically happy and traumatically terrifying.

People hate being seen as not knowing. It induces fear and terror, because we know most people to be judgemental, seeking to use our perceived vulnerability to gain advantage over us. Whether subconsciously or not, our earliest experiences with formal education strongly reinforce the idea that if we don’t know the answer, so fail to put our hands up in class, we’re displeasing our teacher – an authority figure in our young lives.

Some teachers go as far as using public humiliation, calling out painful gaps in our as yet far from complete education in front of our peers, as a means of asserting classroom control. For their part, our little peer group follows teacher’s lead in heaping ridicule, derision and opprobrium on us for being so stupid. And we thought those kids were our friends! No wonder it’s so easy to become disillusioned, isolated, mistrustful of our erstwhile playmates and hence lonely. Not knowing is equated with betrayal. No wonder our enthusiasm for investigative play is curbed. The joy of not knowing can be fragile and easily lost.

It’s very destructive. It’s how inquisitive curiosity is crushed. You’re taught that you had better know everything, or at least be able to make a passable bluff at such an absurd claim. The reality, of course, is that nobody knows everything and our educations will never be complete for our whole lives. There’s always something new to learn.

Sadly, it’s enough to prevent you from finding answers, simply to avoid anybody deducing that the search for new information means you’re lost and clueless. We stick to stuff we already know and baselessly claim that everything else is not worth knowing. I believe this partially explains why art and creative pursuits are so denigrated. Those that haven’t yet learned how to do them would rather hold they aren’t things worth knowing than admit they’re at the very bottom of their personal learning curve. Better to say artists are stupid and a waste of space than admit to feeling foolish at not having learned how to create.

Our own fear of revealing our lack of learning in creative spheres is enough to put some off art for life, tragically. It’s why you hear so many people dismissively claiming they can’t draw to save themselves. Of course they can, but they’re going to have to put in a lot of hard work to get there. If they’ve lost their childhood joy of not knowing, they choose to deny themselves the considerable pleasure of being able to draw well, rather than lose face while it’s obvious they’re still learning. It’s all about shame.

But, as anybody who loves learning will tell you, curiosity is a great way to find answers. Playing with the very concept of not knowing is fun. A very effective way to learn is to thoroughly enjoy the exploration and discovery. There is genuine joy in finding things out and becoming marginally more enlightened than you so recently were.

It’s also daunting, though. You might not know where to start or have taken on such a monumental exploration, you wonder if you can sustain the enthusiasm of the enquiry until you reach your goal. Even if you love to climb the very highest mountains, it’s still daunting and an undertaking that demands great commitment. It’s not to be embarked upon lightly, but paradoxically, you need a certain levity in your approach, or you’ll be too weighed down by your own overthinking to make sufficient progress. Although finding out might matter a great deal, you have to approach the challenge as if any outcome will do. It’s ok not to reach the summit. You have to sincerely believe that.

If you invent things that didn’t exist before for a living, then not knowing how to create a viable solution is truly terrifying, especially when there are commercial deadlines, legally enforceable contractual obligations and many people’s livelihoods at stake. Then, the search for answers can descend into blind panic, if you aren’t careful. You have to hold to the truth that, so far, nobody knows the answers.

The fact that you’re trying to do something that has never been done before means you’re an outlier – a pioneer in potentially hostile territory. You should never allow your dependents to bully you. They don’t know anybody else that knows the answers and probably know very few that have a realistic chance of finding them either. It’s tempting for them to posture aggressively, as if learners like you are ten a penny, but it’s a lie.

Tension, stress, anxiety and insomnia all too often accompany the struggle involved in finding new knowledge (even if it’s only new to you). If your own curiosity causes you to let your project fully absorb you, it gets you in its grip and you could find that you can’t find a way to make it playful enough. Keeping your sense of playfulness is crucial to protect the joy of not knowing.

The key to preserving the joy of not knowing is to take one step at a time, starting from what you already know and to search methodically for the next step. You’ll get there eventually, even if your journey turns out to be longer than other people’s. It doesn’t matter. What matters is the progress.

Courage is required. Creating some safety netting helps with courage. Find ways to make it ok, even funny, to fail. Little by little, you’ll learn to fail better. Each failure will mark real progress. Laugh it off. Don’t take it all so seriously. Don’t let anyone tell you you’re a failure for not meeting their arbitrary standard of excellence. They may be raising the bar to guarantee you fail, just to make themselves feel better. It’s your learning, not theirs. Grow your own brain your own way.

Fear can be paralysing: Fear of failure. Fear of embarrassment. Fear of exposure. Fear of change. Fear of loss. Fear of peeing your pants.

Just hang on tightly to the joy of not knowing.

‘Life is an ongoing process of choosing between safety (out of fear and need for defense) and risk (for the sake of progress and growth). Make the growth choice a dozen times a day.’ ABRAHAM MASLOW, US PSYCHOLOGIST

‘Whatever you can do, or dream you can do, begin it. Boldness has genius, power, and magic in it. Begin it now.’ JOHANN WOLFGANG VON GOETHE

About tropicaltheartist

You can find out more about me here: There aren’t many people that exist in that conjunction of art, design, science and engineering, but this is where I live. I am an artist, a musician, a designer, a creator, a scientist, a technologist, an innovator and an engineer and I have a genuine, deep passion for each field. Most importantly, I am able to see the connections and similarities between each field of intellectual endeavour and apply the lessons I learn in one discipline to my other disciplines. To me, they are all part of the same continuum of creativity. I write about what I know, through my blogs, in the hope that something I write will resonate with a reader and help them enjoy their own creative life more fully. I am, in summary, a highly creative individual, but with the ability to get things done efficiently. Not all of these skills are valued by the world at large, but I am who I am and this is me. The opinions stated here are my own and not necessarily the opinion or position of my employer.
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7 Responses to The Joy (and Terror) of Not Knowing

  1. Feel the fear and do it anyway 😉

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