Certainty sells, but what’s the exchange rate?

I recently co-facilitated a session at Sadler Heath with Rowan Gray that focussed on our shared interest in not knowing. The morning consisted of a number of experiments, chosen at random, that invited participants to immerse themselves in experiences of not knowing in order to see how they responded. One such experiment, led by Rowan, set the group a series of movement riddles – a challenge similar to a traditional riddle but solved through physical, embodied experimentation rather than cognitive, intellectual effort. These simple but powerful challenges surfaced a number of feelings in the group as to the lived experience of knowing versus not knowing.

As each person solved the riddle they were instructed to say “I have solved the riddle” and to step to the side of the room. Early on, when nobody knew the solution, there was a shared experience of not knowing that, although a little uncomfortable, felt OK. However from the moment the first person solved the riddle and stepped aside the dynamic changed. They had some knowledge that the rest of us didn’t have. They had the answer. As more and more people managed to solve the riddle the dynamic changed further and it felt more and more uncomfortable to not know. It seemed that as the social value of knowing increased, the value of not knowing diminished, like a fiscal exchange rate in which one currency’s value drops in relation to another’s. As more and more people discovered the answer it became more and more compelling to move towards knowing than to stick with the experience of not knowing.  It felt as if those who had solved the riddle had something of value compared to those of us who hadn’t. The relative need between us was altered, the status dynamics shifted and what was originally experienced as a playful sense of not knowing began to edge towards personal frustration, embarrassment and shame.

This simple experiment got me wondering about the shadow side of the construct that knowledge is power, that answers are better than questions, that certainty equals security. What are the side-effects of an exchange rate that is almost always biased towards knowing? (It seems a ‘knowing’ coin is typically worth a lot more than a ’not knowing’ coin.) What do we lose when we trade not knowing for knowing? When we trade questions for answers. When we trade possibility for certainty.   Whilst those who didn’t have the answer to the riddle felt deficient in some way, they in fact were rich with a spirit of possibility and curiosity that others had lost through finding the answer. Zen teacher Shunryu Suzuki suggests that “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, in the experts mind there are few.” It seems to me that the distorted social value between uncertainty and certainty inhibits possibility, adventure, curiosity and creativity. What would it be like if the exchange rate between not knowing and knowing was 1:1 – of equal value, where both possibility and certainty are regarded as two sides of the same coin.

The problem seems to be that certainty sells and it is incredibly difficult to argue that the opposite is also true. I find it more and more challenging undertaking work in the corporate world where the value of curiosity and exploration is continually dampened by the overriding belief that there is an answer out there that can be bought and rolled out en masse. Exploration, discovery and emergence are experienced as risky or as an expression of incompetence at not knowing in advance what the answer is. (A bit like only agreeing to attend a sporting event on the basis that we are told final score before we enter the stadium!)  However, it seems that this is a human condition beyond the constructs of organisational life. Socially it seems that certainty has come to equal competence and that those who can conjure it up are those by whom we seek to be led. Those who have a desire to lead are lured into painting a false picture of certainty and security in order to win over those of us who seek it. For example, as a result of the recent hung parliament following the UK’s general election, the incumbent Prime Minister Theresa May promised “to provide certainty.” Irrelevant of any political affiliation, this statement seems to  be a most bizarre thing to say, akin to promising eternal life to those who follow!

In Wisdom of Insecurity: A message for an age of anxiety philosopher Alan Watts suggests that security and insecurity are the same thing and the act of seeking more security actually results in us experiencing more insecurity. “If I want to be secure, that is, protected from the flux of life, I am wanting to be separate from life. Yet it is this very sense of separateness which makes me feel insecure. In other words, the more security I can get, the more I shall want. The desire for security and the feeling of insecurity are the same thing. To stand face to face with insecurity is still not to understand it. To understand it, you must not face it but be it.”  It seems the same can be said of certainty – the more we seek this elusive and mythical creature, the more we experience uncertainty as a result of our our inability to capture it.

It seems that barely a week passes without hearing or reading the term VUCA, a term originally coined by the US Army to describe situations that are volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous. This convenient acronym has become a common currency in the corporate world as a way of describing the social, technological and political climate in which businesses find themselves. It is a term that I have an embodied aversion to for a number of reasons* and, as certainty sells, it has spawned a plethora of training programmes, models and consultants who offer a solution to surviving and thriving in “an increasingly VUCA world.”  VUCA has become big business but it seems to me that these efforts to try to solve or resolve it are ultimately actions that make the experience of it worse, thus perpetuating the cycle.

What if we were to simply accept that…

we only experience volatility because we seek calmness,

we only experience uncertainty because we seek certainty,

we only experience complexity because we seek simplicity,

we only experience ambiguity because we seek clarity.

What if the way to get more at peace with being fully human in a volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous world is to simply deepen our awareness of our lived experience of it? To bear witness and accept it is an inescapable part of who we are and how we interact with other human beings and our environment. What if, instead of continuing to trade uncertainty for certainty and not knowing for knowing, we adjusted the exchange rate so that both were of equal value, meaning that we are seeking neither or seeking both at the same time?  To answer a question with an acceptance that doing so reveals another deeper, more profound question.  I suspect our predisposition to tangible action and concrete answers may make this a rather challenging philosophy to explore.

Alan Watts suggests “The question ‘what shall we do about it?’ is only asked by those who do not understand the problem. [Such] questions demand a method and a course of action. At the same time, all of them show that the problem has not been understood. We do not need action—yet. We need more light. Light, here, means awareness—to be aware of life, of experience as it is at this moment, without any judgments or ideas about it. In other words, you have to see and feel what you are experiencing as it is, and not as it is named.


*My “VUCA” aversion arises from the acronym being a symptom of “thingified“, reductionist thinking – a compulsion to oversimplify, categorise and label things for fear that they will otherwise not exist. I also don’t totally believe the rhetoric that the “VUCA” environment is increasing more than ever before. From my limited understanding of natural history the planet seems like it was way more “VUCA” 65 million years ago – it’s just become increasingly more inconvenient for human beings to do business in a more connected and individualistic society.  I’m sure if time travel were possible that a human being from medieval times, Egyptian times or stone age times would agree that their experience of the world felt rather volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous. I also have an aversion to terms arising from war and human conflict being applied as a metaphor to business. All of the above is of course my own personal perspective that I am passionately non-attached to.  But obviously needed to get off my chest!