The Power of Not Knowing

Book - 2015
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An illuminating look at the surprising upside of ambiguity--and how, properly harnessed, it can inspire learning, creativity, even empathy
Life today feels more overwhelming and chaotic than ever. Whether it's a confounding work problem or a faltering relationship or an unclear medical diagnosis, we face constant uncertainty. And we're continually bombarded with information, much of it contradictory.
Managing ambiguity--in our jobs, our relationships, and daily lives--is quickly becoming an essential skill. Yet most of us don't know where to begin.
As Jamie Holmes shows in Nonsense , being confused is unpleasant, so we tend to shutter our minds as we grasp for meaning and stability, especially in stressful circumstances. We're hard-wired to resolve contradictions quickly and extinguish anomalies. This can be useful, of course. When a tiger is chasing you, you can't be indecisive. But as Nonsense reveals, our need for closure has its own dangers. It makes us stick to our first answer, which is not always the best, and it makes us search for meaning in the wrong places. When we latch onto fast and easy truths, we lose a vital opportunity to learn something new, solve a hard problem, or see the world from another perspective.
In other words, confusion--that uncomfortable mental place--has a hidden upside. We just need to know how to use it. This lively and original book points the way.

Over the last few years, new insights from social psychology and cognitive science have deepened our understanding of the role of ambiguity in our lives and Holmes brings this research together for the first time, showing how we can use uncertainty to our advantage. Filled with illuminating stories--from spy games and doomsday cults to Absolut Vodka's ad campaign and the creation of Mad Libs-- Nonsense  promises to transform the way we conduct business, educate our children, and make decisions.
In an increasingly unpredictable, complex world, it turns out that what matters most isn't IQ, willpower, or confidence in what we know. It's how we deal with what we don't understand.
Publisher: New York :, Crown Publishers,, [2015]
Edition: First edition.
Copyright Date: ©2015
ISBN: 9780385348379
Characteristics: 322 pages : illustrations


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JCLChrisK Dec 02, 2016

Not knowing doesn’t leave us without a compass, in some relativist nether land. Owning our uncertainty makes us kinder, more creative, and more alive.

JCLChrisK Dec 02, 2016

Both empathy and creativity spring from the same source: diversity. Empathy, after all, is a fundamentally creative act by which we connect previously unimagined lives to our own. The path to embracing other cultures has to traverse the imagination. That’s why studies have shown that a high need for closure hurts creativity. And it’s why reading fiction—which puts us in other people’s shoes—can both lower our need for closure and make us more empathetic. Spending time among diverse social groups has the same effect.

JCLChrisK Dec 02, 2016

Having an open mind doesn’t imply having no opinion. It often implies having both opinions. It means not denying the supposed contradiction that victims can be victimizers and vice versa, a simple truth that dogmatists refuse to accept. Such contradictions fuel . . . art. The open-minded person, likewise, cultivates those tensions.

JCLChrisK Dec 02, 2016

The roots of prejudice can be traced to a general cognitive outlook characterized by the hunger for certainty.

JCLChrisK Dec 02, 2016

Lasting knowledge earns its keep by allowing itself to be persistently questioned. In any field, we gain true confidence when we allow our ideas and successes to be continuously challenged.

JCLChrisK Dec 02, 2016

Ambivalence is a more natural state of mind than we ordinarily assume. Wanting and not wanting the same thing at the same time is so common that we might even consider it a baseline condition of human consciousness.


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Dec 08, 2016

Nonsense is a fine book whose premise promises much more than it can deliver. We live in a world over-saturated with signals and information, i.e. much of it nonsense, so the idea that one can harness this unavoidable onslaught into something of an advantage is a welcomed assurance.

Author Jamie Holmes offers anecdote after anecdote on making sense of the randomness. The stories are good—some of which I'm familiar with from other business-esque books—but I suspect there's a tricky balance to maintain reader interest when your unifying theme (nonsense) is also that which people actively try to minimize in their lives.

JCLChrisK Dec 02, 2016

A fascinating book. One, I think, worth going back and studying, now that I’ve finished an initial read, to consolidate my understanding of key takeaways and contemplate best practices for applying them.

The book’s contents, in brief, as pulled from the prologue:

“This book argues that we manage ambiguity poorly and that we can do better.”

Part 1 “lay[s] the groundwork.”

Part 2 “focuses on the hazards of denying ambiguity” in personal, professional, business, and organizational situations, among others.

Part 3 “highlights the benefits of ambiguity in settings where we’re more challenged than threatened: innovation, learning, and art.”

“In an increasingly complex, unpredictable world, what matters most isn’t IQ, willpower, or confidence in what we know. It’s how we deal with what we don’t understand.”

Holmes provides an abundance of real life examples, research and studies, and synthesizing commentary to make a strong case. For my tastes he was a bit heavy on illustrative anecdotes and a bit light on analysis, but both were there. And, unlike many books of this type, I found that last part, focused on positively applying the earlier ideas, the most exciting and compelling.

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