The Surprising Power of Not Knowing What to Do

During a family vacation in 1943 Edwin Land, inventor of the instant camera and co-founder of the Polaroid Corporation took a picture of his three-year-old daughter Jennifer. He explained to Jennifer that she could see the picture after it was developed, which at the time had to be done in a darkroom or processing lab. Jennifer objected asking, “why do we have to wait?” According to Land, Jennifer’s question sparked the notion that camera film could be invented that did not require time-consuming processing. In 1947, Land introduced the instant camera at a meeting of the Optical Society of America. A couple of years later, the camera was available to the public.

In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s, there are few.

Shunryu suzuki

The image above is the Japanese Kanji for Shoshin, which means, beginner’s mind. In his book, Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, Zen monk and teacher Shunryu Suzuki opens with, “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s, there are few.” Land’s daughter Jennifer demonstrated a beginner’s mind by asking what some would describe as a naïve question. Land too demonstrated a beginner’s mind by allowing his assumptions to be altered by his daughter’s question. A beginner’s mind can circumvent constraints and expertise because it is not burdened by assumptions about how the world works or what should or should not be done.

The Beginner’s Mind Versus the Stuck Mind

To engage with a beginner’s mind is to take a leap of faith. The beginner’s mind is not waiting for an opening to insert a point of view. The beginner’s mind does not seek to absorb someone else’s expertise. The beginner’s mind trusts that what attracts its attention in the moment will illuminate a path forward. Like the mind of an improviser, the beginner’s mind builds on what is offered.

By contrast, the stuck mind is most attentive to its own assumptions and biases. The stuck mind fears uncertainty and indiscriminately eliminates complexity. The stuck mind fears uncertainty because uncertainty introduces the risk of upending the status quo. The stuck mind eliminates complexity because complexity feels overwhelming.

It’s hard to imagine a time of greater uncertainty and complexity than the current moment. The twin viruses of Covid-19 and racism have infected us with a malaise. The governing principles of civil society that anchor our identities and our aspirations have come unmoored. When our bedrock assumptions are threatened, we become susceptible to simplistic answers, arrogant leaders and snake-oil salesmen. We are grateful for any port in a storm. More than ever we need to adopt a beginner’s mind.

How to Cultivate a Beginner’s Mind

Those paralyzed by the uncertainty and complexity of our chaotic times have hunkered down. They wait for the storm to pass. Those approaching our challenging times with a beginner’s mind have begun to notice and get curious about long held assumptions. Some people are asking what would have seemed like naïve questions before the world turned topsy-turvy:

  • Why does it matter where my work gets done?
  • What is the purpose of a classroom?
  • What is the relationship between law enforcement and public safety for all citizens?

You can practice cultivating a beginner’s mind by giving yourself permission to think, “I don’t know,” when someone asks, “what should we do?” Even if you believe you do know what to do, set your solution aside temporarily and imagine the response of someone who has no expertise or experience to draw on. If you truly had no ideas, you would start with a question. The question would likely be naïve and potentially as potent as Jennifer’s question to her inventor dad.

Here are few all-purpose, beginner’s mind questions to use when someone asks, “what should we do?”

  • What is going on that makes it important for us to take action?
  • What would you like to have happen?
  • Who will benefit from taking action and what are their needs?
  • What are we assuming about the way things work that might be limiting our options?

The beginner’s mind sees abundant possibilities because it is not captivated by assumptions the world has left behind. If you’re feeling stuck, here’s my advice…

Don’t know what to do? Don’t know what to do!

The Unstuck Mindset

Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and right-doing there is a field, I will meet you there.

Rumi

During the Classical Period, The Greek philosopher Aristotle explained the cosmos just as it appears, with the Sun and Moon revolving around a stationary Earth. When certain celestial objects (planets) did not move as predicted, Ptolemy figured out how to make the math work. In 270 B.C.E. some 1800 years before the Copernican Revolution, a Greek astronomer named Aristarchus proposed a Sun centered (heliocentric) cosmology. The general public could not fathom Aristarchus’ view that the Earth moved around the Sun; if the Earth was in motion, they reasoned, we’d be able to feel it move.

History gives Copernicus credit for making a heliocentric cosmology stick. Copernicus, Aristarchus, and likely others did not allow the certainty of appearances and consensus to dissuade them from considering alternatives. Copernicus and Aristarchus exhibited unstuck minds.

In 1994 South Africa ended the policy of legally enforced racial segregation known as apartheid. In 1996 President Nelson Mandela asked the Archbishop Desmond Tutu to chair South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC). The commission was established to investigate human rights abuses in South Africa during apartheid. As an advocate of restorative justice, Tutu proposed that the commission undertake a threefold process of confession, forgiveness, and restitution.

The TRC has been viewed by many as a model for national healing, albeit an imperfect one. In spite of the angry calls for retribution, Mandela and Tutu believed that for the oppressed to adopt the practices of the oppressors would be a betrayal of the humanistic ethics of Southern Africa known as Ubuntu. Mandela and Tutu envisioned a peaceful, thriving, multi-racial nation. Mandela and Tutu exhibited unstuck minds.

An unstuck mind develops from the disciplined application of an unstuck mindset. The term mindset describes the relatively stable assumptions and beliefs we apply to our thoughts about ourselves and about the world; it’s our way of thinking about things. In a way, “Unstuck mindset” is a useful contradiction in terms. To suggest that a mindset is unstuck is to acknowledge that we have a way of thinking about the world and at the same time acknowledge that we’re not wedded to our way of thinking.

In a way, “Unstuck mindset” is a useful contradiction in terms. To suggest that a mindset is unstuck is to acknowledge that we have a way of thinking about the world and at the same time acknowledge that we’re not wedded to our way of thinking.

When we work with clients who seek to develop their leaders’ strategic agility, we start from the premise that strategic agility benefits from an unstuck mindset. After all, being strategic means having a plan. Being agile means being able to make quick and easy movements. Putting them together means having enough certainty to choose a destination while simultaneously being attentive to signals that present viable alternatives and breakthrough options. Aristarchus and Copernicus didn’t try to fit their observations into the prevailing worldview, they wondered if the anomalies they observed might be clues to a new paradigm.

The unstuck mindset is grounded in bedrock values. The unstuck mindset trusts that learning is its own reward. The unstuck mindset presumes that as humans, we have the agency and capacity to determine our futures and solve our problems. Mandela and Tutu empathized with the pain of those calling for vengeance, yet they created an opening amidst the tensions associated with the end of apartheid for justice.

The unstuck mind develops insights by sitting with, rather than avoiding questions and tensions. Being comfortable with questions and tensions makes the space between uncertainty and certainty more habitable. The unstuck mind prefers continuums to categories. The unstuck mind thrives under conditions of ambiguity.

An unstuck mindset allows you to develop four thinking skills:

  1. How to think about the context surrounding the situation you’re dealing with, so you don’t miss something important
  2. How to think about the structures holding your current situation in place, so you don’t solve the wrong problem
  3. How to think about the desires and needs of people in your network, so that you don’t exclude diverse perspectives
  4. How to think about how you’re thinking, so that you don’t get misled by blind spots and biases

We’ve struggled to find a simple way to express what it meant to have an unstuck mindset and then we came across the image above. We’ve started referring to the young adventurer in the image as Charlie. Charlie is the embodiment of an unstuck mindset. Just look at him! Charlie has prepared himself for discovery. He is relaxed, righthand in pocket. He is undaunted, left fist pointing to his future. One gets the impression that Charlie has attempted this voyage before. Charlie willingly launches himself into the uncertainty of wide-open spaces because he understands that all the best possibilities dwell in the wide-open spaces.

Practicing Uncertainty

Are you pro-life or pro-choice? Should governments regulate social media companies? Who is our ally and who is our enemy in the Middle East?

When you read each question above, did you think about your answer or did you think about your reaction to the question? All three questions have one thing in common: they are all terrible questions.

At Unstuck Minds, we call questions like the ones above, quicksand questions. Instead of encouraging productive dialogue, quicksand questions limit the conversation, misdirect our attention, encourage us to seek blame, and preserve the status quo. In short, quicksand questions keep us stuck.

We ask quicksand questions because we like simple answers. Complexity, uncertainty and ambiguity make our brains hurt. The technical term for the impact of imposing too much information on our working memories is cognitive load. We have two strategies available to us for dealing with the cognitive load we experience when dealing with an increasingly complex and uncertain world. We can oversimplify our challenges or we can develop our capacity for processing un-simple information.

Here’s a workout routine for teams that helps them stretch their capacity for uncertainty before taking on a complex challenge.

The Ethicist column appears weekly in the New York Times Sunday Magazine. The current “Ethicist,” Kwame Anthony Appiah continues the tradition started by Randy Cohen, who wrote the column for twelve years. People submit thorny, modern, every-day dilemmas that raise questions about the right thing to do. The Ethicist provides perspective on the issue and renders a conclusion. Cohen collected some of his favorite questions and responses in a book called, “Be Good: How to Navigate the Ethics of Everything.” Here’s a sample question from one of Cohen’s columns:

My mother wants to hire someone to clean house and handle the laundry. To assure herself of this person’s integrity, she plans to leave loose money around as “bait” during the house cleaner’s first few days of work. Here in Brazil, those stray bills can constitute a significant percentage of a house cleaner’s wages. My mother sees this “trap” as a perfectly ethical precaution. Do you?

Inviting a team to discuss ethics questions not only gives team members a chance to hear how others think, it gives everyone a chance to develop their ability to play with questions that don’t have easy answers (you can find Cohen’s response here).

Considering how to respond to an ethics question requires a different capacity for problem solving than the skillset most organizational leaders feel comfortable using to analyze a problem. One key difference between responding to ethics questions and analytical problem solving is the role of ambiguity and variability. Like ethics questions, complex strategic questions require a high degree of tolerance for ambiguity and variability. Analytical problem solving on the other hand views ambiguity and variability as the enemy of the search for an effective and efficient solution.

Like learning to use an atrophied muscle, teams working on complex challenges may need to warm up their tolerance for variability and ambiguity. When we are unprepared to brave the tensions inherent in uncertainty, we get drawn into the status-quo quicksand.