Uncertainties, mysteries and how to nurture your negative capability


Most of the time it is what we don’t do in any given creative inquiry that helps us the most. This is especially true for when we are working on an issue with our teams that requires us to generate some new thinking or ideas. Or perhaps when we are exploring a new line of inquiry with learners. In both of these situations we are consciously choosing to step into a state of flux, a situation that can often be defined by what is not known rather than what knowledge we share.

It is in this state of creative flux that we need our mindset to be the most open, the very time when it is most challenging to do so. Human nature does, in some way, dictate that we prefer the habits, rituals and the agreeable comforts of processes we know. We draw a degree of situational steadiness from the fact and reason we can rely on. We see this type of reaction in others as we work with them to move on to new practices or technologies. Especially technologies. The comfort in the known is often too tempting to make the leap and embrace something new and the physical reality of technology is even more challenging as it is harder to ignore and move off of your desk than an ideological concept. Letting these go and embracing the state of change and the unknown that surrounds us is counter intuitive and it takes practice to fully accept.

The learning process seems to be defined by these moments of flux we experience, sometimes fleeting, often protracted. Uncertainty, doubt and mystery is part of our process of learning. Accepting that we will experience the uncertainty of such times is a great first step for us personally and within our teams, whether learners or leaders. After all, “If we knew what we were doing, it would not be called research, would it?” as Einstein once suggested.

Secondly we must be emotionally aware of this uncertainty. What I mean by this is to use our emotional state to help prepare for future experiences that will be similar. When you are navigating an organisational inquiry it not only puts you in a state of cognitive flux but one of mild emotional turmoil as your intuition presses you to seek steady ground and the reassurance of decisions. We are torn between seeking originality and the comfort of tried and tested ideas. We should be mindful of how this uncertainty feels, how we react to it and how our emotions change. When we have the energy to record our own emotional experience of such moments we are far more likely to recall them in future times and use these emotional schemata to respond more appropriately.

As an aside I think that meta-emotion is an area we must help learners understand much better. On a simple level to be able to help them manage their own learning more effectively by having a better understanding of their own emotional topography.

A third area that contributes to a better creative approach to inquiry is the understanding that we have a process. When you take this knowledge away or it is not shared amongst a group, we are introducing another mystery: where is this all heading? We have all experienced those meetings or projects which never went anywhere, great energy and contribution but no follow up or shared understanding of the direction it was heading. By having a simple, clear, and shared process we actually offer some certainty amidst the planned doubt and mystery that is to come. All too often inquiry can feel like we are researching forever, as much as we want to embrace not knowing, and Einsten’s suggestion from earlier, our process needs to mark the way through this.

The quote from John Keats that inspired this post was from a letter he wrote to his brothers George and Tom in December 1817 about their mutual friend Charles Dilke, exploring the ideal literary state of mind, one in which someone exhibits “negative capability”. A sense of calm assurance and innovatory endeavour in the inevitable “uncertainties, mysteries and doubt” that defines the ups and downs of striving for something original. I believe that when we are able to recognise all of this as a natural part of learning, when we keep the signposts in view of a shared process and if we have awareness of our emotional reaction, we are engineering the best possible conditions for creative inquiry and hopefully new ideas to flourish.

You might like to read more about this using the following links:

Keats and Identity: The Chameleon in the Crucible | Patrick J. Keane » Numéro Cinq
The image that I used for the quote is called Homeward Bound by ROSS HONG KONG and is shared under an Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike License.


  1. Thanks Row – good to hear from you, I am pleased the post resonated with you. I know you will be well versed in uncertainties at the moment and more recently, interesting to consider how we can generate more of these types of opportunities in our design of learning.

  2. It is interesting the different ways in which we react to flux and the many strategies we have to avoid it, staying on the straight and narrow of the known. Maybe we should encourage learners to consciously step into flux on a daily basis and explicitly talk about how it feels and how we deal with it. Great post Tom.

  3. Tom, great piece. Much for me to reflect upon and as usual your thinking is on the money. Too late for some …. Always in your debt. Row x

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