The Wisdom of Not Knowing

Curiosity, letting go and making uncertainty a friend are among the keys of innovation success. Inviting the unknown is essential for creativity yet too often fear, uncertainty, comfort, stability and familiarity get in the way. In The Wisdom of Not Knowing: Discovering a Life of Wonder by Embracing Uncertainty author, psychotherapist and speaker Estelle Frankel explores the challenges and exciting opportunities of embracing the unknown. She draws on scientific studies, religion, Jewish mysticism and her experience in private practice to produce a compelling guide on how to tap into the wisdom of not knowing. In this interview, Estelle talks about her own experience with the unknown and how it can spur creativity.

What lead you to write this book?

It had many origins. I love poetry and I found myself collecting poems about the unknown, and they had become my daily prayers you might say. And in part, it was personal therapy for my own issues around my own struggles around embracing uncertainty. When I was young I was super courageous and adventurous and never hesitated to put myself in situations that stretched me. But as I became a parent I became more conservative and cautious and even fearful of the unknown, in part as a way to protect my feisty offspring.

Now I’m an empty nester that adventurousness has come back, at least a desire to take risks. So exploring this theme was part of my own growth. But it’s also a theme that fascinates me as a psychotherapist and as a mystic, my two areas of work. I teach Kabbalah, Jewish mysticism and I am a practicing psychotherapist and everything about therapy is about expanding the boundaries of the known and overcoming fears of the unknown.

Your book has a chapter on creativity subtitled ‘Opening the Gates of Insight and Innovation’. Both are very much about embracing the unknown, aren’t they?

The creative process always involves an immersion in what is unknown, something that has previously never existed. If you always go with the tried and true you are not going to innovate and you’re not going to be creative. Creativity is an openness to the unknown.

Can too much prior knowledge stifle creativity?

Absolutely. It’s our desire for certainty that keeps us clinging to the familiar. To allow something new, unknown and alive to emerge in our lives, to create something we have to step into the unknown. I liken it to the moment – not that I’ve ever parachuted – but metaphorically speaking when you step into the unknown it’s that moment when you take the jump and you are waiting for your parachute to open. There’s a moment of freefall, of not knowing and being able to bear the uncertainty and relax with that experience. This remaining open to not knowing creates a space where creativity can emerge.

And there has to be a willingness to embrace it.

A willingness and a capacity to bear uncertainty and it requires in some people a certain humility. Often, people are afraid to not know because it makes them look stupid. You need a certain amount of confidence in yourself to be humble enough to admit that you don’t know or to hold a space of not knowing.

Some people are afraid to ask questions for fear of appearing stupid. Yet their questions could open doors to discovery.

Literally, that’s what questions do. They open up doors for the imagination, they open up doors to possibilities and that’s why I talk about humility being part of courage to expose one’s ignorance. You can’t learn anything new unless you first unlearn unless you first admit that you don’t know something. Asking a question is the beginning of wisdom.

Even the things you think you know there are dimensions of mysteries and dimensions of unknowns that you don’t even know enough to know what you don’t know.

How do you help people to get comfortable with uncertainty?

First, we have to become aware of the ways we avoid uncertainty by staying in our box. Many people are just in their box and not even aware that they’re in a box. So there’s first just becoming aware that there is life outside the box of your known ideas, patterns and realities. And then becoming curious about what else might be possible, nurturing curiosity.

Then comes courage, developing the courage muscle. This doesn’t mean that you are suddenly fearless. It means you learn to take steps into the unknown and be uncomfortable but not avoid that discomfort. The first step is about bearing discomfort – ‘oh wow I’m scared my heart is racing because I’ve never done this before, my heart is racing because I’m afraid I might fail. Well, let me just breathe and relax around this fear.’ People can desensitize themselves to the fear of the unknown. It’s a slow process of desensitization.

We have to know ourselves and know what our limitations are and our growing edges. And always try to step outside the boundaries of our edges. The unknown is your growing edge.

And not to be frightened?

You will be frightened. We are hardwired by evolutionary forces to fear the unknown that’s how our ancestors stayed safe and stayed alive. You will feel fear but don’t let fear stop you from venturing out. Also, fear and excitement are physiologically the same. If you’re feeling fear it may be a warning that you are in danger and you should listen to the fear, but if it’s just a necessary fear of the unknown experience it as excitement.

If we didn’t we’d still be living in caves.

There’s that wonderful children’s movie The Croods where there’s a family of cave dwellers and the father wants to keep everyone safe by staying inside the cave. But this outsider comes and motivates them to leave the cave and venture forth and that movie portrays these two forces, one towards safety and one towards adventure and we need both. And you have to be willing to fail and willing to take risks. You’re taking a risk and risking failure when you step into the unknown.

What do you say to people who agree with all this and practice it but are still failing to achieve what they want?

Then it takes faith to persevere to persist at something and face the failure. I have many examples in The Wisdom of Not Knowing of scientists who hit a wall with their research when their entire research project seemed to go up in smoke. But instead of giving up they came up with a new hypothesis. We learn more from our failures than we do from our successes. There really are no failures. If we’re learning and growing and asking new questions and persevering the story’s not over with a failure.

Writing a book is a leap into the unknown. How do you feel when you look at a blank page?

For me, the unknown became my muse. What I was writing about and the process of writing it converged and whenever I would hit a wall and not know what I wanted to write about I’d go take a walk in the forest near my home and just be silent and be empty and enter into the white spaces. Inevitably I would come back to the drawing board with fresh ideas and so this creative process of writing involves a dance of knowing and not knowing. Every writer, artist and poet has to work with uncertainty with the blank page and celebrate it in a certain way. It’s what we call in Jewish mysticism the white fire. The letters of the words of the text are the foreground but the background is all that empty space, all that parchment around the letters and the greater revelation is this white fire which is really about the white space, the unknown.

Some people want to innovate but say they don’t have a creative bone in their body. How can they be helped?

One of the things that has been studied is the way self-consciousness, self-monitoring inhibits creativity. In order to be creative, we have to stop judging and monitoring ourselves. We have to give ourselves the freedom that children have before they’re self-conscious.

There are studies on creativity that involve Janusian thought, the ability to think in paradox to get out of linear thought. There’s a psychiatrist named Albert Rothenberg who has studied and written about the creative process and he says that engaging in paradoxical thought, looking at seemingly incompatible ideas that contradict each other stretches the brain.

There were studies of people who read a Kafka story before engaging in creative endeavors that showed they were far more creative because wrapping their minds around an absurdity stretched their mental capacities, stretched their abilities to think outside the box. So yes there are exercises one can do to expand and enhance creativity starting with not being critical of oneself and giving yourself space to play, to fail, to experiment, to be curious and to be childlike.

There is a neuroscientist called Charles Limb who studied the brains of musicians, comparing what part of the brain lit up while they played a known score versus when they were improvising. With jazz musicians who were improvising the parts of the brain related to self-monitoring didn’t light up. However, the parts of the brain associated with the senses lit up brightly. So it’s a kind of full sensual experience to be in improvisation mode.

I’m a little bit of a musician. I’m not a professional, I just play a little guitar and piano, and I know that I have to stop scrutinizing myself to allow any kind of composition to come through me. And music comes to me all the time. I just often don’t pay attention to it, but it’s there. And you can make yourself receptive by getting out of linear thought.

And finally, what advice can you give to anyone facing a challenge but who fears the unknown?

I say what have you got to lose? The only thing you have to lose is your pride so if you’re humble anyway, if you have a humble heart you have nothing to lose by risking uncertainty. And don’t be afraid of fear. This is the thing. People fear fear, but if you can allow yourself to tremble as you venture out and hold your own hand so to speak the path will often come to greet you. If you take one step into the unknown the unknown will become your muse and guide you.

The Wisdom of Not Knowing: Discovering a Life of Wonder by Embracing Uncertainty by Estelle Frankel is published by Shambhala Publications.

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