The Art of Not Knowing and Taking Risks

‘If you cannot change your mind, you are not using it.’ Gregg Braden

Change nowadays seems to be accelerating and uncertainty is becoming the norm. In times of great transition, taking decisions, planning and solving problems may make us feel in over our heads. In panic, we may even feel under pressure and pushed to know it all. What’s missing in these situations?

Let’s imagine we are drawing a circle on a piece of paper, to represent all the knowledge on the universe. Then let’s draw a slice of what we know of that knowledge, meaning a small slice to represent that. For example, we may know the Amharic language, how to cook Chinese food, and how to manage a business.

Now let’s draw another slice to represent what we know we don’t know. We will see that it’s bigger than the former. It could represent the countries I haven’t visited, and the subjects of Psychology and Medicine, which I have little knowledge about.


So, what is the huge rest of the pie? It actually represents what we DON\’T KNOW WE DON\’T KNOW. We are often afraid to access this space, as we need to take a risk and be vulnerable. Accessing this space creates breakthroughs and requires the skill of inquiry.

Therefore, in life, for the first slice (what we know) we need to apply our knowledge, the second, (what we know we don’t know) learn it, and the third, (what we don’t know we don’t know) is to inquire to generate a new way of seeing.

The Power of Risk Taking

Not knowing what we don’t know can be described by the term ‘Negative Capability’. The poet Keats, in 1818 said, ‘when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason’ Being in unknowing therefore, is a capacity. For Keats then, there is beauty in not knowing, in sitting with the feeling of discomfort, especially when the outcome is uncertain.

Speaking with one of the 2020 AWiB (Association of Women in Boldness) Board Members, we concluded that practicing Negative Capability is taking a risk, but so relevant and beneficial. It can help us develop new skills. Not knowing an outcome requires us to be vulnerable, open and transparent. This requires us to ask for feedback and learn new things, to surrender to the situation. Taking risks helps us to move beyond a predictable future, and work towards a desirable one. We can take such risks at work and emerge having learnt a great deal.

Speaking with such an AWiB colleague, we reflected that in our context we need to develop the culture of risk taking. Launching big events, restructuring, communicating difficult decisions and taking new assignments all involve taking risks. We recalled how at AWiB, when organizing the first May Forum, our heart beat fast when a few days before the event it seemed that we hadn’t raised enough funds to pay for our venue. With commitment and vision however, we persevered, and on the day, we had a room full of 500 people.

Risk taking in our culture is not the norm. Because of our history we are perhaps risk averse as we have the saying: \’It\’s better to choose the devil you know than the angel you don\’t\’. We usually wish to play it safe, look good, obey the rules and not make mistakes. However, being more comfortable about not knowing may aid us to defy norms and try new ways of doing things.

Perhaps, more often, we need to have the courage to admit that we don’t know, and reach out to others and say: What do YOU think? Let’s inquire together’ The solution, the answer, may be laying just there.

I would like to acknowledge coach Allan Henderson for providing me with insights about this topic, and many more.

Written by: Nadia Waber

Images: Knowledge is Power Blog, and Jeff Nischwitz