The Not-Knowing Mindset

Have you ever experienced how hard it is to be the follower in a partner dance – the one not leading?

For many of my customers it seems equally hard to be able to start a painting without having a plan, without knowing the direction they are going. I challenge them to start the first layer just by playing with colors and forms, then take a step back and respond to what they have created to that point by adding a new layer on top of what they’ve done. This process continues until the painting gains shape and will eventually be complete. Not-Knowing mindset - a group begins to paint

Young children naturally paint this way. They start with the first line and then keep adding until they finish. For adults this way of painting seems often alien. The expectation is to have an idea, a concept, a theme when you start and execute against that. For many adults, it’s scary to start without having a visual goal in mind.

In my workshops, I usually start walking around after everyone has been painting for about 15 minutes to check on each participant’s work. I’m often greeted with shameful grins and the response, “I have no idea what I am doing.” I hear those exact words at least once each class. The participants sound apologetic and lost. When I congratulate them, their tormented smiles change into blank surprise. “How can that possibly be a good thing?” They feel like they haven’t been successful.

Not-knowing often seems like a sign of weakness. In school, when you don’t know the answer you are not on track. You are not meeting expectations. If you know what you are doing you feel safe and secure, and you expect to be successful. How can it be good not to know?

Not-knowing mindset painting in blue

Accepting the Not-Knowing Mindset

It all starts with acceptance. Once my painters accept not knowing and start to embrace the situation, the paintings start to open up. Suddenly their canvases are full of opportunities. Having a set plan can limit artistic expressions. Whereas when you give up control over it the painting starts to become richer and more interesting. The first plan or idea is often a very simple concept like wanting to paint that palm tree on the beach with the sunset in the back. The mind then is in execution mode and knows where the painting is supposed to go. But when we allow ourselves to doodle, to play around, to explore, eventually at some point our censor-brain (the part of the brain that wants to have clear guidelines and control) shuts down and doesn’t want to have anything to do with that process anymore. At this transformational point we feel at ease, and the stream of our sub-conscience starts to contribute unusual and new ideas. When we are free from executing a plan we become more receptive and our inner voices can surprise us with what they tell us.

By no means am I saying that you have to create every painting that way. But I believe this approach to painting leads to amazing results and requires no artistic skill.

What is there to gain from the Not-Knowing Mindset?

But even more importantly besides creating interesting art I believe that there is a far bigger benefit in experiencing the not-knowing mindset. There is so much to learn and to gain from embracing the unknown.

In the 21st century the pace of change has become faster than than ever. We have no idea how the human society will be 25 years from now. We have no clue what impact climate change, increasing population, or terrorists will have on our planet. In total, we are facing a lot of uncertainty. This is why we need people who are not paralyzed by the fear of uncertainty because not knowing can be very scary. We need to successfully navigate uncertainty.

The managers who succeed in the 21st century economy are those who learn to embrace change and uncertainty, not fight it.  – Ann Francke, chief executive of CMI

If we learn to live with the not-knowing mindset we will be open to future possibilities. We will ask open questions, we will use the power of curiosity, we will discover new options and come up with innovations. Our brain will not panic when we face a new problem. We will be used to swimming successfully in the waters of uncertainty, and we will swim towards a new solution.

Let’s seek opportunities to practice being comfortable exploring the unknown.

How? Start with this little experiment? Choose one day as your not-knowing day. Set aside a day with no plans. During the day keep yourself from planning ahead. Just decide for each moment where to go and what to do. Is it hard? Do you find it fun? Is it confusing?  Feel free to share your experience with me. I am curious to hear about your discoveries.

If you want to know more about not knowing, this book is full of examples:   Not Knowing: The Art of Turning Uncertainty into Possibility by Steven D’Souza and Diana Renner

Not knowing opens endless possibilities. Not Knowing goes hand-in-hand with playfulness and adventures. And once you get used to it this freedom can be addictive.


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