What is the opposite of certainty?
I’ve started to play around with an idea I’m calling “group awareness”. My working definition is in two parts. A collection of people has group awareness when they have developed 1) the ability to learn about where they are and what they are doing at any given moment, and 2) clarity about what they want to do next.
This seems so simplistic.
In certain circumstances, it is also very easy to do. When we are clear about the result we want and what we need to do to produce that result, we can just get on and do it. Like when building a car, making a hamburger, or processing a payroll.
In other circumstances -- when certainty is lower or the stakes are higher -- this simplistic definition is much more challenging to enact. The challenge intensifies as the task increases in complexity.
So often, groups spend countless hours mired in the past, looking back, trying to affix blame for something that has already happened, wanting to change something that nothing can be done about. The corollary pattern is when people get busy keeping their heads down so as not to be the one that gets blamed.
Even if we’re not playing the blame game, “How do we keep that from happening again?” might not be the best question to ask. Not least because it may never happen again. A far better question, one that opens us up to greater possibility, is, “What do we do now?”
Something else we seem to like to do in groups is spend time contemplating some future that is unlikely to be realized in this lifetime. Vision statements, anyone?
Before I come off as more cynical than I intend, let me say that it is important to have a sense of direction, or an idea about where we want to go, or to think about possible futures and do some contingency planning. It is useful and practical to prepare for the worst, for example.
But, if we use this idea only to assemble a determinate series of steps to get from here to there, steps that we are going to follow no matter what, because we have ordained this path as the best way to go, we may find we never get there.
It is far more effective to decide what we will do right now, watch what happens, and on the basis of those results, decide what we will do in that next right now. Better for the plan to clearly identify what we will do first when the catastrophe hits. After that, who can say what will be needed?
Too much focus on the past or the future can be a rabbit hole easy to slide down, and once in there, it tends not to be a very productive investment of time and effort.
It is much harder to remain in the present moment, attending to what is happening right now. Paradoxically, being in the moment is much more uncertain compared to focusing on the past where you can argue about different takes on what has already happened, or trying to create a future already imagined.
In the present, we never know what will happen next. We have to be open, adaptable, willing and able to learn. This is the key. It is only in this place of uncertainty that learning is truly possible.
Careening down a predefined path toward a future I know is there closes me to what may be going on along the way. It shuts off my curiosity and any ability to learn from what is happening. It is why I say that the opposite of certainty is ... learning. If we can develop the discipline to live most of our lives in the present and find the courage to be comfortable with all the uncertainty that implies, we will have cultivated our ability to learn more fully.