Best Practice: Maintaining Tension (between knowing and not knowing)

Photo by  Casey Horner

Photo by Casey Horner


Purpose: to adopt a mindset of both “believing and disbelieving” to learn something new or widen your perspective.

Most of us are taught in school and later in our jobs that once we are successful then we’ll be happy. Yet, research demonstrates that happiness is a precursor to success. Optimizing for tangible “success” is so seductive. We even refer to them as “tangible outcomes” forgetting to observe the process for achieving them. We will suffer through arcane methodologies and esoteric language to achieve these “outcomes” forgetting to take note of the experiences we have along the way. We often had to learn the hard way that success is merely a byproduct of a particular approach, not an end goal.

A key component of happiness is curiosity. Curiosity is what makes us open to new ideas and unfamiliar experiences. Buddhist’s refer to this as entering with “the beginner’s mind.” Researchers call it “growth mindset.” Children naturally embody it. Adults when forced to change, experience it under duress. Curiosity helps us see new things, see old things in new ways, and be open to multiple truths. Ta-Nehisi Coates discusses the notion of “muscular empathy” which challenges us to be open to some of the most difficult truths.

Muscular empathy is not the soft, flattering, hand-holding empathy. Coates describes muscular empathy as deeply rooted in curiosity. If you really want to understand a difficult topic, “it is essential that you first come to grips with the disturbing facts of your own mediocrity.” He counsels us to look at ourselves, first, and painfully examine ourselves before determining an opinion.

The first rule is this--You are not extraordinary. It's all fine and good to declare that you would [have done more, known more, been more]. But it's much more interesting to assume that you wouldn't have and then ask, "Why?" —Ta-Nehisi Coates

Certainty is the enemy of curiosity. Or as “Google Genius” Tom Chi explains, knowing is the end of learning. Being certain and knowing things is so tempting. Most of us, me included, have learned that knowing things and being certain is how we prove how smart or wise we are. The opposite is actually true.

Our certainty about people, organizations, and the world makes them predictable and it gives us a false sense of comfort and control in our understanding of how the world operates. This belief in a fixed world is an illusion and the source of our entitlement to certain outcomes and lays the foundation for our frustration, irritation, and sadness when things don’t work as we think they should.

We seek control when we feel out of control. This is most acute when we are tipping forward toward change as individuals or enduring change in organizations. The more control we seek, the more out of control we feel. It’s a cycle of our own making.

The most insidious illustration of this concept shows up in our relationships with others. When we feel out of control we try to control those around us. “Can’t they just be different? more like us? do what we want or need them to do? Others experience us like a vice, constricting their ability to express themselves, ignoring their needs, and dominating us.


It is better to believe than to disbelieve; in doing you bring everything to the realm of possibility. —Albert Einstein


Every individual is growing, evolving, learning, and changing everyday. We are movies, always evolving toward a conclusion. We are not photos, frozen in time. When we make others predictable we rob them of that same possibility.

When others become predictable in our minds we give ourselves permission to stop listening. When we stop listening we aren’t really interacting with others, we are simply interacting with the simple (and convenient for us) versions of them we have created in our own minds. Sometimes we even make others predictable in a negative way to shift responsibility for what we don’t like from us to them.

If you feel out of control, let go of trying to control things. Life becomes magical when you let go of as much control as possible over what is beyond you and simultaneously claim as much agency as possible over what is within you.


Consider an event and write about it. It can be anything from seeing someone at lunch to a major meeting. Choose something that isn't too emotionally jarring. List the aspects of it that were completely in your control and which weren't. This might yield some initial insights on what is or is not in your control.

Here is an example:



The intent to show up on time to the meeting

Valuing my boss's opinion of me and my work

The wish to reduce my close rates and turnaround times

The desire to get actionable advice from my boss (if it'd help meet most of my goals)

Conscious nervous thoughts/what I tell myself


Actually showing up on time (another meeting might have run late)

My boss's opinion of me

Meeting my close targets (I can't force the engineering team to implement ALL my fixes!)

Actually getting useful tips

Automatic nervous thoughts and physical feelings of anxiety

Alongside technical skills, people who can master a range of subjective skills are better able to influence, deal with ambiguity, bounce back from setbacks, think creatively, and manage themselves successfully in their pursuit of mastery. Learn more about the 25 Skills.