Embracing what you don’t know

by | Mar 29, 2018

How to Use Awe and Wonder to Succeed

 Most people live their lives within their own comfort zones, but you have to accept that often you don't know in order to succeed.

One cold April morning, I jumped off the top of an Alpine peak. That wasn’t the hard part. The run to the cliff knowing I was going to jump was one of the most difficult things I’ve done, and the most exhilarating.

I remember when the guide told me to run as fast as I could to the edge of the mountain without hesitating. He would be running behind me but my committed run would help lift the parachute so when we got to the edge, it would carry us both to safety. My brain screamed “NO,” but I thrust my body forward. Each stride was in direct rebellion to my brain.

The float down was beautiful, past shiny ice ledges, glistening waterfalls, green patches with white flowers, and the tiny town below growing in view. But the run to the cliff was more memorable. The run into the unknown with my brain and body screaming at me was magnificent.

Don't know

Nothing is certain

When my feet touched the ground and I had a chance to process the experience, I realized how much power I had to muster to achieve my goal while countering what my brain concluded was dangerous, uncertain, and stupid. Never mind that I checked the guide’s safety record and we tested everything before we left. At the make-or-break moment, nothing was certain and my brain fought hard to get me to quit.

Every day, we are faced with uncertainty and ambiguity. We are racing toward the unknown. That morning, I knew I wasn’t sure what was going to happen. Most days, we pretend we know what’s coming and avoid testing our theories so we aren’t proven wrong.

We like to think we are on top of things. We fill in our schedules, map out our months, pick safe vacations, and chastise ourselves if we feel lost or uneasy.

What’s worse, we act as if what we don’t know doesn’t exist.

Resilience is a key feature of being able to handle ambiguity. Our Returner Roll-Up Session can help you with Developing Resilience.

Overriding Your False Sense of Knowing

The need to know is particularly true of leaders who work hard creating models and schematics to predict a future they cannot know. They prepare as best they can, but are afraid of telling anyone, “I don’t know.”

The novelist Pico Iyer, having traveled with the Dalai Lama, said the one thing that seemed to give people reassurance and confidence was when the Dalai Lama would answer their questions with, “I don’t know.” He made it okay to not know.

Iyer also says, “The opposite of knowledge isn’t always ignorance. It can be wonder.”

In The Neurophenomenology of Awe and Wonder,[1] the researchers created a scientific study to define awe and wonder as experienced by astronauts in space, and determine if we can replicate these experiences. The answer is yes, though it’s not easy.

The authors define wonder as two senses merged. “The first sense is closely tied to the feeling of awe; the second to the feeling of curiosity.” In other words, you experience wonder when you see something that takes your breath away, and then ponder how this came into existence with open questions instead of assumptions. Add in a little humility for recognizing that what you see is beyond your control—that you are a tiny part of the vast universe—then your needs and fears decline as you sense that you are part of a collective experience appears. You then ask, “How can we move through this space together?"

Can you use a sense of wonder when faced with complex challenges? Can you declare that what you are facing is a new experience, be amazed by what is occurring, and engage others to curiously explore how the phenomenon appeared?

Not knowing what’s next can make you anxious, angry, or numb. You can also choose to be excited, saying, “Here we go!” as if boarding your favorite roller coaster at night.

Using wonder to succeed

Hal Gregersen, author of the Harvard Business Review article, “Bursting the CEO Bubble,” says ambiguous shifts are always around the corner in life and business.[2] When you are determined to have all the answers, you stay within the bounds of what you know. Sometimes that’s necessary and appropriate, but if you’re going to crack open new territory, you’ll need to break that habit.

The solution is not that complicated, Gregersen says. “Get out of the office today and spend more time being wrong, being uncomfortable, and being quiet.” Don’t just be curious, ask the question, “What could I be dead wrong about?’” Then admit, “What can I now see that I didn’t know I was looking for?”

Here are other questions Gregersen asks,

  1. When was the last time you were dead wrong about something? How fast did you change course?
  2. What could you be wrong about now and be surprised to find?
  3. How often do people ask you uncomfortable questions at work?  (If not much, why not?)
  4. How much time do you spend with people who make you feel uncomfortable?
  5. How many questions do you ask versus statements you make in typical conversations?

To be a good leader, partner or friend, role model how to embrace ambiguity. Give up being the one who knows so you can be the one who engages people in creative dialogue. Be curious about knowing what you don’t know. See everything brand new so you don’t miss what’s changing.

Seek to be awed and filled with wonder.

Every morning provides you a new chance to embrace the thrill of what you don’t know.

Do you feel too comfortable? Do you need a change of career? 3Plus can help you Learn how to identify your transferable skills.


[1] Gallagher, S. et al. (2015) The Neurophenomenology of Awe and WonderTowards a Non-reductionist Cognitive Science. Palgrave Macmillan. pp. 22-23.

[2] This article appeared in the March–April 2017 issue (pp.76–83) of Harvard Business Review.

Marcia Reynolds Contributor
Dr. Marcia Reynolds, president of Covisioning LLC, is author of The Discomfort Zone: How Leaders Turn Difficult Conversations into Breakthroughs. She weaves together three areas of expertise: organizational change, coaching and emotional intelligence to help leaders have powerful conversations.
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