On the Joys of Not Knowing

It may seem counterintuitive for me as the Academic Director of Aalto EE, an institution very much focused on disseminating and developing knowledge, to suggest we should, as the title of this piece suggests, find joy in not knowing. However, there is in fact a rich history of respected institutions and great thinkers lauding the value of not knowing.

Mikko Laukkanen, 27.09.2018

Before we go any further on this topic, however, it’s fundamental to make a clear distinction between not knowing and ignorance. Not knowing refers to accepting a lack of certainty or absolutes, while ignorance is simply a state of not having acquired available knowledge and information. The first seems to be a key part of learning, discovery, and progress, while the latter is the outcome of unforgivable intellectual laziness, or as the Victorian poet Robert Browning rather succinctly puts it “Ignorance is not innocence but sin.”  

Not knowing refers to accepting a lack of certainty or absolutes.”

Both the great bard William Shakespeare and the recent Nobel Prize winner, songwriter Bob Dylan, have echoed similar sentiments about how maintaining a childlike curiosity and open mind are measures of true intellect and maturity. Shakespeare: “The fool doth think he is wise, but the wise man knows himself to be a fool.” Dylan: “Ah, but I used to be much older then / I’m younger than that now.” Our last quote on the topic comes from the novelist F. Scott Fitzgerald (of The Great Gatsby fame), who tells us that: “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.”

So, it seems that in these times of information overload, increased uncertainty, and constant innovation, not knowing has arguably become more valuable than ever before. Being able to postpone jumping to conclusions may indeed be an important part of making sense of a confusing world, generating creative solutions, and being a great future leader. Why is it then that it seems to be so difficult for us to embrace not knowing?

Maintaining a childlike curiosity and an open mind are measures of true intellect and maturity.”

One answer may be found in how we perceive the competence and value of those around us. A set of studies conducted by Professor Cameron Anderson and his team at University of California, Berkeley, have found that those who are assertive and confident in their interaction with team members are not only perceived as being strong leaders, but are also seen as being more competent than their objectively measured performance would suggest.

Even if you feel you must pretend to know all the answers to your professional peers, at least privately try to embrace not knowing. Next time something new and confusing comes your way don’t rush to the familiar or to your tried-and-true go-to solutions. Rather give yourself a break, spend some time mulling over the problem, and try to enjoy not knowing.

Dr. Mikko Laukkanen is the Academic Director at Aalto EE. He is also a Researcher at the Aalto University School of Business and frequently lectures in Aalto EE’s programs around the world.

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