The Tension of the Unknown

Imagine a stranger holding a black box with a hole cut into the side asks: “Would you like to reach your hand inside?” Do you do it?

This is the question I asked over and over again in the lab with three and five year olds (using a big cardboard box). I wanted to discover who would act, who would hesitate, and who would want nothing to do with my creepy mystery box.

I was measuring a trait that psychologists call tolerance for ambiguity – though I like to think of it as our response to the tension of the unknown.

This tension leads most of us to react in one of two ways: pull away or push through.

To pull away is to stay planted in the center of our comfort zones (much like the Roomba).

To push through is to reach certainty as quickly as possible (guessing and Googling at high speeds).

Both strategies can temporarily ease our discomfort, but they are not going to do much for us long term. Our world these days is less predictable than ever before. We can’t expect to be in the same job for 50 years. We can’t expect to ever “finish” learning. And even our environment is in a constant state of change. To thrive in this new world, we need a new mindset.

We need to re-frame surprise as an opportunity rather than a threat.

We need to see the tension of the unknown as a normal and even interesting sensation rather than something to run from or run through. When we do this, the tension of the unknown can turn into something we notice, acknowledge, and then give permission to stick around.


Because when we allow ourselves to not know we can be better learners, listeners, innovators, and even happier human beings.



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