I don’t know

“I don’t know”.  In today’s frantic, pressured world it’s not a phrase that seems very acceptable.

It’s almost an unspoken rule, in education, work and life in general, that you are supposed to know the answer – an answer you have learned, an answer you have experienced or an answer you have invented – but the right answer.

In recent years those pressures for answers seem to have increased.  Answers used to be norms – the things you are supposed to say or do.  Things which few of us pay attention to day-to-day but if we do, we debate for a while and then carry on, slightly more frustrated, cynical or depressed.  Better the devil you know.

Except the world feels more erratic now, and norms don’t seem to guarantee success, for the organisation or the individual.  In the face of that, while some people keep going, hoping for the best, others propose new ideas that sometimes get the spotlight but more often get lost or ignored.

Whether you prefer the status quo or something new, we are challenged to have instant, perfect solutions and to justify them.  Instant is easy.  Perfect is impossible. Both together create pressure.  From investors, our boss, our team, social media, journalists.  From each other.  From ourselves.

What’s rarely acceptable is to say “We don’t know.  It’s complicated.  Let’s clear some space”.  Then we could do two things: talk honestly about the situation, including the challenges we know but generally ignore; and use our individual perspectives to create good solutions, not just argue about our differences.

Modern neuroscience is showing the chemical reasons we get addicted to quick solutions, in service both of avoiding threats and achieving rewards.  Dopamine gives us little hits every time we answer an email or complete a task, whether or not they were really useful.  If we sense a threat, real or not, cortisol helps to maintain focus and anxiety, while adrenaline and noradrenaline act like we are driving with feet on the accelerator and the brake at the same time – lots of noise and smoke but little progress.  We have incredibly well developed reactive systems, but less well developed noticing and balancing systems.

In the connected world where everyone seems to be shouting to say what we should be doing, it could be our most radical act is to slow down occasionally, accept that we don’t know the whole story yet, notice what we are missing, and act on what we find, not just what’s expected.

Somehow, “they did what they were supposed to” doesn’t sound like a good enough epitaph for any of us.

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