By Margaret Wheatley, 2000
First published in The Works: Your Source to Being Fully Alive
If we are people exploring the unknown, if we are to be the pioneers and discoverers of the new world, then I’d like us to notice the presence of some essential but unusual companions. One of our greatest friends on this journey of discovery is a very strange ally–disturbance. It feels important to me to highlight disturbance’s role as a friend because I have come to see certainty as a curse. This was not a realization that came easily to me. I, like most of you, was raised in the traditions of Western schooling. Knowing the right answer was always rewarded. Intelligence was equated with how well I did on tests, and most tests were about knowing the right answer. Later, as a leader, I was promoted for my certainty–I had the vision, I knew how to get there, and people would follow me based on how well I radiated that certainty, how well I disguised my fears.
But everything has changed since those sweet, slow days when the world seemed knowable and predictable, when we actually knew what to do next. The growing complexity of our times makes certainty about any move or any position much more precarious. And in this networked world where information moves at the speed of light and “truth” mutates before our eyes, certainty changes and speeds off at equivalent velocity.
But in spite of these new realities, it is very difficult to surrender certainty-our positions, our beliefs, our explanations. These things lie at the core of our identity-they define us as us. Yet in this strange new world, I believe we can only succeed in understanding and influencing this world if we are able to think and work together in new ways. Our most cherished beliefs, our greatest clarity must be offered up. We won’t necessarily have to let go of everything we believe and know, but we do have to be willing to let them go. We have to be interested in making our beliefs and opinions visible so that we can consciously choose them or discard them.
There’s another reason that our certainty needs to be surrendered. We live in a dense and tangled global system. Inside this complex and interconnected world, everyone has a different vantage point. It is true biologically that there is no one else exactly like us. But we are less sensitive to the fact that we each see things differently. Because everyone sits in a different place in the systems of work, community, and individual lives, we will each see the world from a unique vantage point. As complexity grows, we need more colleagues, not fewer, to describe to us what they see, what it looks like from their perspective.
The very complexity of life ensures that no one person can explain what is going on to everyone else, or assume that their point of view is the right one. We can look at this complexity as a new Tower of Babel, where we can’t hear each other because of so much diversity. Or we can look at it as an invitation to come together and truly listen to one another-listen with the expectation that we will hear something new and different, that we need to hear from others in order to grow and survive.
The need to relinquish our certainty lies at the heart both of modern science and ancient spirituality. From the science of Complexity, Ilya Prigogine tells us that, “The future is uncertain. . . but such uncertainty lies at the very heart of human creativity.” It is uncertainty that creates the space for invention. We must let go, clear the space, leap into the void of not-knowing, if we want to discover anything new.