End of the world as we know it

There’s something about knowing that we associate deeply with competence, confidence and professionalism.

We turn to teachers because we want to know what they know.
We follow leaders because we believe they know where they’re going.
We give the work to those who know what they’re doing.

We believe that our value, our professionalism, our expertise exists in what we know.
We are valued for what we know. We contribute what we know.

So what happens when we don’t know?

When the path that lies ahead is uncertain, untrodden, unexplored?

When we don’t know, we tell ourselves that something’s gone horribly wrong. We become imposters, waiting to be found out. We’re terrified to ask for help, because we believe we should know what we’re doing. We feel the guilt of letting others down, because they trusted us to know.

In these situations we flounder, we feel exposed, unqualified.

And yet…

When our job is to discover, to build, to create, to develop, then surely it’s in the job description to go beyond what we know, and step into the unknown?

When our goal is to learn, surely it’s not knowing that feeds our curiosity and signals “here lies the treasure you seek”?

Those butterflies in your stomach – what if they’re a good sign? An invitation to excitement rather than fear, a signal for adventure rather than foreboding?

In fact, it’s only when we don’t know that we’re most likely to seek, listen, explore and learn. It’s only when we stop relying on what we know that we become open to what’s possible, new and surprising.

Somewhere along the line we’ve mistaken certainty with confidence.

We’ve learnt to see unknowing as a sign that we’re out of our depth, that we can’t cope.

We think knowing qualifies us, and keeps us safe. But it also keeps us stagnant.
Curiosity, creativity and change cannot exist without unknowing.

Is the more capable person the one who never struggles or the one who knows how to struggle well? The one who faces struggle with vulnerability, courage and a willingness to learn, to fall, to screw up, to get up, to keep on showing up?

Great professionals know what they don’t know. Dangerous health professionals are the ones who think they know it all.
A confident driver is one who recognises the unpredictability of other drivers and road conditions. A dangerous driver is the one who thinks they are fully in control.

And when we’re afraid of showing our unknowing because we don’t want to let others down? Turns out owning our unknowing is the very thing that builds trust:

“We asked a thousand leaders… what do your team members do that earns your trust? The most common answer: asking for help. When it comes to people who do not habitually ask for help, the leaders we polled explained that they would not delegate important work to them because the leaders did not trust that they would raise their hands and ask for help. Mind. Blown.” Brene Brown, Dare to Lead

The truth is, we’re all on the brink of unknown territory. We live in an age of change, where uncertainty is the new normal, and the people we need around us – the people we need to be – are those who are willing to leave the safety of the known, and figure out how to live and work well in this new world we’re getting to know.

This is an excerpt from my upcoming book Struggle: the surprising truth, beauty and opportunity hidden in life’s shittier moments

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