Why knowing less will help us learn more


“Mystery is an enticement and an invitation to learning” – Dr Tim Rayner


When we believe we know everything, we no longer feel the need to keep learning. Why should we? We’ve got it all covered, right?

But, here’s the thing. While we might be experts in our fields for now, this self-assurance severely restricts our view of all the possibilities available to us.

Leadership and ‘uncertainty’ experts, Dr Tim Rayner and Diana Renner discussed how our instinctive Fight or Flight response affects our ability to make decisions in their presentation ‘The opportunity in uncertainty’, part of Florence Guild’s speaker series, ’The Art of Focus’.

With the rapid rate of change in almost every aspect of our lives, all we can really be sure of is that our world is going to look very different in just a few years. Many things we take for granted now will evolve or disappear, and this thought sparks different reactions in each of us. Some see the future as exciting and energising, while others are frightened by the unknown.


Conversation Notes

  • Uncertainty has a lot to do with the culture surrounding expertise and leadership within our society.
  • As humans, we’re naturally wired to want to know and experience everything.
  • Emotions are not simply our responses to the world, emotions are the response to the way our body cognitively responds to the world.
  • Our brain loves taking shortcuts, but sometimes it prevents us from looking at things with fresh eyes. So when we stop looking, we miss out.
  • Uncertainty is a doorway to discovery, so long as we embrace it.


How fight or flight mode works

Fight or Flight is a self-preservation mode that humans and animals revert to when faced with a dangerous or uncertain situation. We have to instinctively decide whether it is better for us to stay and defend ourselves or to flee. This decision is purely primal. Our normal thought processes shut down and we just have to deal with the immediate situation. There is no logic to it at all.

Ruxana D’Vine and Michael Meryment explained how Fight or Flight continues to affect us in their article for Business System Alchemy, Business Change and Fight or Flight.


“In an evolutionary sense, Fight or Flight was critical to our long-term survival. However, modern life is very different and the chances of us coming across a physically danger-filled situation is the exception, not the rule. We’re now more concerned with our ongoing well-being and security, often to the point where we fight hard to ensure that nothing disrupts our hard-won, comfortable, equilibrium.”


Rayner and Renner agreed. As they pointed out, we can become blind to possibilities or so set in our ways that we don’t know how to deal with them when we come across them. Getting stuck in Fight or Flight mode can also cause us to leap ahead into knee-jerk actions that are often not well-considered.

For example, Rayner said he knows many entrepreneurial leaders who are so charged with their own self-certainty they don’t stop to take a broader perspective. They end up rushing down the safer path and wasting a lot of time and money on projects that haven’t really been explored thoroughly.

Many leaders don’t like to admit that they are uncertain (especially politicians). Our culture says that to be a leader, we have to be an expert in something. To admit we don’t know how to respond to a new situation is, for many, an admission of failure. However, it’s ok to accept that our knowledge is limited. That leaves us open to learning.

When we are certain, our focus is narrow. When we are uncertain our focus is broad. When we believe we are in danger, our senses fire up and we notice many details we might not have noticed before.

It is really important to reflect on the judgements that we make when we are encountering uncertainty. In a fight or flight situation (if we are not in danger) we need to step back and examine our own thought processes and physical reactions at that time. For example, you could say to yourself, “Maybe the situation is not as dire as I think? Maybe I can just settle and get my bearings before moving in a constructive way?”


How do we make the most of the unknown?

Change your mindset

Instead of fearing uncertainty, learn to embrace it. It does take work, courage and resilience, but it can be done.

We are slowly seeing a cultural shift away from the idea of ‘leader equals expert’. The leaders who are now best equipped to deal with the changes ahead are those that are saying, “Hey, I don’t know what’s going to happen tomorrow, but I am going to set my organisation up in a way that is flexible enough to respond quickly to any changes we face”.


Mitigate risk

Advancing into the unknown does not mean being unprepared. Like the great explorers of old, today’s leaders need to be ready for any possibility. This could mean having multiple backup plans, flexible income streams or fresh minds available to assess any challenges.

All this is very important to innovation.

If we can cultivate a sense of excitement and wonder in uncertain environments then we become much better at producing creative solutions to difficult problems.

As Rayner said, “Uncertainty is the doorway to discovery if you see it in the right way. You’ve just got to find a way of making that shift in perspective to get through the door.” To which Renner added, “If your relationship with the unknown and uncertainty is not full of dread and if it is full of wonder and curiosity, then you are here. This is where learning happens.”



Tim’s Linkedin: Tim Rayner  |  Tim’s Twitter: @timrayner01

Diana’s Linkedin: Tim Rayner  |  Diana’s Twitter: @notknowinglab

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This episode forms part of our 2018 series narrative, ‘The Art of Focus’ which is based on the premise that, in an information-dense society, our attention resources have become depleted. The series’ speakers will help us identify and explore the areas in our lives where we may need to regain focus, increase our self-awareness and improve how we interact with those around us.

If you’d like to hear more thought leaders speak on ‘The Art of Focus’, subscribe to our podcast series on iTunes and Stitcher Radio.


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