Sunday, May 20, 2012

A Cautionary Observation

Good morning.
"And the beat goes on........................."

Accepting That We Don't Always Have the Answers:
We live in an age where information and knowledge is king.  We seek solutions and answers.  We demand results, not equivocation.  We have the means to seek out what knowledge is out there, where the answers lie.  And we fervently believe the answers are out there.  We pursue that search for those answers with fervor.  We can barely abide not knowing something.  Yet, the plain and simple truth is that - as often as not - when faced with complex issues and challenges, the honest answer is "I don't know."  

That's hard for us.  We live in a world where shades of gray are of increasingly little value.  We want  blacks and whites.  We want definitive answers.  We want for there to be consensus that one of the theories out there (and there are theories aplenty to explain everything) is the right one.  We want explanations and reasons for things being the way they are. Not lots of divergent, sometimes even conflicting explanations, but one cohesive, universal theory.  We worship data and research, and surely those findings guide us down the proper road when we must make decisions one way or the other.  We hire experts and consultants to give us the answers we don't know.  Surely, they know.  Yet the best of those experts will say:  "I don't know."

Somehow it is not only difficult, but now seemingly sacrilegious, or every heretical, to admit that we don't know the answer to some question, some posited problem.  Why is that?

Why is it unacceptable for us to admit that much of what we do in response to challenges, much of what we throw at those challenges that goes under the guise of our informed response is nothing but conjecture; that we really are guessing that what we are doing is the right approach; that in fact there may not be any right answer?  The arts presumedly teach us that taking risks is the right answer; that the process of discovery may be as important to the end result as the result itself, and that the reward of something truly unique, mystical, magical, beautiful, inspiring is problematic.  Why then is it so difficult to transfer that same logic to the process of dealing with the challenges we face on more mundane levels?  Why are we so afraid to fail that we insist on knowing the answer to something that may, in fact, not have a right answer any more than a musical composition or dance has a right direction?

In our own small sphere of the nonprofit arts, we have goals and objectives that we wish to accomplish, and we devise methodologies and constructs to measure and evaluate whether or not what we are doing is moving us towards those goals and objectives. We create sophisticated models to explain these processes.  I have no problem with that enterprise.  But I question the assumption that we can always reduce all of this to some definitive, black and white,  conclusion that is infallible and unassailable.  I fear that in all of this - (and by all of this, I mean our research, our data gathering techniques, our measurement methodologies, our models of evaluation, our ways of looking at what we do and why) we are now either too afraid, or too insular, to say:  "I don't know."

And the reality, irrespective of what fictions we maintain, what lies we tell ourselves, is that very often we do not really know what we are talking about.  We are guessing. The truth is that we simply don't know the answers we pretend to know.   There is a danger in our pundits believing too much in the correctness of their own postulations.  Opinion served up as fact, doesn't make it so.  Opinion qualified as opinion is, on the other hand, healthy and beneficial.  Let's remember the difference.

I'm a consultant.  I don't claim to be the best or smartest of my brethren.  But those more qualified than I have taught me that a good consultant, is willing to say to the client, if the circumstances warrant, "I don't know the answer".  I believe then to be a good consultant one needs to be collaborative in the search for solutions rather than hold oneself out to be omniscient.  I think the same needs to be true of the field as a whole, and so I believe we are better served as a sector by keeping in mind that frequently we just don't know the answer.  That's not to say we shouldn't try all kinds of approaches, posit all kinds of theories, and both question and defend those rigorously, but  that we ought to do so in an atmosphere that recognizes that a lot of our posturing might be wrong - and with an admission that we sometimes deceive ourselves. And I don't think we do that enough. I am not arguing that we need to embrace ungrounded intuition.  Indeed, we need to seek persuasive grounds on which to base our decisions, but I fear that we are getting closer to the point where we are intractable in defending our theories as gospel; that we are less willing to admit doubt, less willing to accept the proposition that we don't know; and I am afraid that we are moving intractably towards definitive positions, towards defending our positions as unassailable in explaining how and why things are as they are.  And an unwillingness to appreciate the fallibility of our thinking is dangerous.

I would argue that more movement (whether or a macro or micro level) in the direction we want to move things might result if we more frequently simply said:  "I have no idea.  Let's go from there."

Of course, this is just opinion - a theory, and it may be worthless.

Have a great week.

Don't Quit


  1. Hey Barry,

    I think this is one of my favorite blog posts EVER. Thank you for writing it!

    And it seems that a number of folks are discussing similar views lately. Arlene Goldbard just wrote a great post on the related tangent of people not automatically settling for the status quo: And this quotation just popped up in another person's blog: “The trouble with the world is that the stupid are so confident while the intelligent are full of doubt.” – Bertrand Russell

    I think the more we can be honest about our limitations the less we end up always being their victim. And to me this means keeping an open and flexible mind. It seems that the less we are curious about the world, and the less we actively explore it, the more we are chained by what we pretend to 'know', by our superstitions and biases.

    And as much as I adore so many art forms as an audience member, it seems that absorbing other people's art gets our curiosity and imagination only so far off the ground. It seems that the best way for us to keep our minds open is to actively engage in creative projects where it IS an exploration, where the answers are not known, and when discovered are only provisional. It seems that the less that people are creative in their own lives the more they get stuck with the limitations of believing only what they are told and stubbornly clinging to the comforts of certitude rather than being open to the discomfort of uncertainty.

    For me it seems that not only will the arts benefit from an audience keeping their own curiosity alive, but society as a whole will keep more open minded and take on more of the responsibility for creative decision making. Being creative means having first hand experience of how to make a difference in the world. Exploring means not knowing. Curiosity means being open minded. It is only because imagination finds expression that new art brings something new to the world, discovering what the world can be rather than simply reasserting dogma.

    To me it will always seem vital that support for the arts be a support for people's native creativity. We ALL lose when our audiences become mere passive consumers of other people's ideas, or close minded proponents of only one way of looking at things. Art matters to society not by just being entertainment, a sop for the masses, but by pointing the way forward. Art isn't just something the public can consume, but what every person can also do themselves. Art doesn't only show us what other people think: It shows us how to think for ourselves. To creatively engage and keep our minds open, to keep our curiosity alive, may just be the most important thing we can do. And THIS is art's main strength....

    And of course that's just my opinion. As usual I'm probably off my rocker. But its maybe an interesting thought at least....

  2. Barry, At times I think you are reading our minds. I was having a conversation with a friend and colleague this weekend who is the ED of a national service organization in the arts. We were discussing the topic you addressed and also our self inflicted need to always win the battle. We in the field continue to always find a rabbit to pull out of the hat, even at times when we believe in our core that the hat may be empty. This need to be right and win yet another battle for the arts coupled with what you said causes one to pause and really consider the level of stress and challenges that we face everyday. Thanks for being there Barry and helping us to pause a bit and look closely at our world.