Why it’s better to not know (than know)

During a past leadership program, a participant told the group, “You can never say ‘I don’t know’ to your team.”

I asked, “What would happen if you did?”

He said that if a leader admitted to not knowing, people would lose faith in him/her. The team’s confidence would plummet; energy and optimism about the future would wither.


I think it’s the opposite.

Not knowing is a powerful leadership competency.

It’s through not knowing that you open yourself up to new information, new ideas, new insights, and new options. But, it’s even more powerful than that. You’re capacity to be comfortable in the ambiguity of not knowing opens the possibility for other people to do the same.

Not knowing can stir up anxiety.

Which is why people retreat to their entrenched positions of knowing. But, hidden behind the anxiety there’s a wonderful aliveness and energy.

Fritz Perls, the developer of Gestalt Therapy, used to say that anxiety was excitement without breathing.

If you keep breathing in the face of anxiety – not knowing transforms from being threatening to being inviting.

You feel the excitement that arises when you cross the threshold from predictability into the realm of creativity, innovation, and discovery. Then, instead of your meetings being soul-numbing events – you can have truly creative conversations. Conversations that start with the mind-opening, soul-freeing acceptance of not knowing.

Modeling this transformation – from anxiety to excitement – is a demonstration of leadership.

When you can move yourself across the threshold of anxiety – others will follow. But, if you freeze yourself into a fixed posture of knowing, you stifle not only your own growth but the growth of your team as well. Your capacity to open to the unknown sets the creativity bar for the team.

When you embrace the creative power of not knowing, you put yourself at the head of the learning curve.

That’s the leadership position – at the head of the learning curve.

It’s the place of maximum aliveness and . . . courage.

It takes courage and commitment to live at the head of the learning curve. But, having courage doesn’t mean you always know what to do next. Courage means you can move forward despite not knowing – that you aren’t frozen by anxiety.

To be courageous is to be wholehearted.

Which means that you’re able to listen to the parts of you that are doubtful even fearful. You don’t exclude the dissident voices within you. You’re able to listen to them without losing track of your deep commitment to action. And because you listen, those dissident voices and anxious emotions calm down.

You don’t have to fight against your doubts when you’re wholehearted.

You don’t have to pretend your certain – when you’re at the head of the learning curve. You can listen and discern the wisdom that doubting brings. Doubting keeps you from drinking your own kool-aid and believing your own press.

When you’re wholehearted you don’t need to be right.

You don’t have anything to prove or a leadership persona to protect. You’re wholehearted about the mission. You’re not invested in looking good or keeping your image polished. You care deeply about the work and the people you work with.

So it’s okay to admit that you “don’t know”.

Because to do so takes you to the head of the learning curve – where your next expression of leadership can emerge. And where you can invite others to join you in the journey of discovering how to create what matters most.


  1. What do you do to turn anxiety into excitement and creative action?
  2. How do you keep yourself at the head of your learning curve?

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How talking undermines goal setting

Every coin has two sides: a head and a tail.
They can’t be separated. Wherever you find a head, there’s a tail.

Every complete communication has two sides also: a listening side and a talking side.
But these, alas, can be separated.
And often are.

Most of us put way more energy into talking than listening.
(Okay . . . maybe not you . . . but I do.)

When I’m passionate about a subject, when I feel that my point of view is under attack, forget listening. I’m all about the talky-talk. But talking isn’t the same as communicating.

Too much talk and too little listening undermines communication. And it undermines goal setting too.

Because successful goal setting requires lots of listening.

What does listening have to do with goal setting?
Let me quote author Parker Palmer who sums it up beautifully: “Before I can tell my life what I want to do with it, I must listen to my life telling me who I am.”

Typical goal setting gets half the equation right. The talking half.

In typical goal setting you tell your life: “This is what I want. These are the objectives I want to achieve. The experiences I want to have.”

But the listening half is often neglected.

Listening to your life takes slowing down.
And slowing down seems so antithetical to the way goal setting has been taught to most of us.
We’ve been told that goal setting is about getting going. Charging forth. Sallying forth into the future.
Well, it is . . . and . . . it isn’t.
Yes, goal setting is future-focused.
It’s true – goals are meant to promote action.

But how can you know in advance that the goals you are setting are ones you really want to invest your life energy in?

Wouldn’t that be worth knowing?

Listening to your life connects you to a clear and profound sense of what matters most.

This is information worth paying attention to.
Because, while it is possible to simply tell your life what you want it to do – pausing to listen lets you to align the trajectory of your goals with your deepest values.

You begin by listening to your history.
Sprinkled through your life are experiences when what you were doing (and who you were being) brought you fully alive. Times when your actions and interactions enriched your self and your world.
There are clues in those life experiences – about what matters most to you, about your values, and the work you are called to do in this life.

Discerning the clues hidden in these positive memories let’s you shape your future-focused goals in ways that embody your values and bring your calling to life.

The key to this listening is not to over-think the process.

Listening to positive memories is not an analytical exercise
Your ability to think and analyze has its place. Later. Much later. When you are in the action and implementation phase of your work.
For now, the key is listening. Being receptive. Tuning in.

Let yourself feel the giddy, alive, potent sensations that come from breathing in those positive memories.
Yes, breathe them in. Deeply.
(And if your analytical mind can’t figure out how to breathe in memories – well that’s because it’s not his/her turn to be in charge yet.)
Keep breathing them in.
And let yourself connect – without words – to the energizing impact that comes from listening deeply to your life in this way.

Listening connects you to the creative energy of your life.
What begins as an exercise in remembering quickly brings you into contact with a very lively feeling.
It’s the feeling that comes when you connect with the creative energy that has fueled your most cherished experiences.

When you are connected to and acting from that creative energy, you’re able to set and pursue goals with power and integrity.
When you are disconnected from it, your vitality evaporates, decision-making is confused, and the way forward feels like slogging through wet cement.

Once you’re breathing in harmony with that creative energy, it is time to ask a question.
Ask your life: “What do you want?”
You ask this question into the center of your heart. Or into the core of that creative energy. You ask it, and then become quiet. Listen again. And then write down what you are told.
Use this as a basis for goal setting.
Expand on it.
Elaborate it.
Extend it.

Because having listened to what your life has to say, it is time for you to talk. To declare what it is you want. To set goals.

After all, how valuable is a coin that only has one side?

Here are the steps to this process:

  1. Recall two or three times in your work and/or life when you were most energized, engaged, and fulfilled.
  2. Then, pick one. Then focus in on a moment (a detail or event) that, for you, captures the positive essence or energy of that whole experience.
  3. Tune into the feeling of that moment. Sense it. Breathe it in.
  4. Let go of words and just enjoy the giddy, alive, potent sensations that come from breathing in that positive memory.
  5. Once you’re breathing in harmony with that creative energy – ask that energy (your energy) “What do you want?”
  6. Ask and then be quiet.
  7. Write down what you are told.
  8. Use this to kick-start and direct your goal setting.

Expand on it.
Elaborate it.
Extend it.

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Six Ways to Realize Your Goals


When I was thirteen years old, I had to capsize a canoe and swim 100 yards to shore with all my clothes on. I was at a Camp Takajo in Maine and this ordeal was required before I could to take out a canoe on my own.

If you’ve ever had to swim 100 yards fully clothed, you understand a basic idea from physics – “drag”. Drag is the mechanical force that opposes your body’s motion through the water.

Dolphins don’t experience a lot of drag.

Dolphins slice through the water. Evolution has honed the dolphin’s body to minimize drag.

Not so with our human bodies.

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What’s your sugar?

It’s all too easy to see your own unfinished business in the behavior of others.
It’s not that you’re perception of their lack is wrong. We’re all working our way through unfinished business. Everybody has lots of room for improvement.
It’s just that focusing first on how they need to change can distract you making a much more powerful and influential move. Before you go about correcting others accept your experience of their lack as a mirror reflecting your own inner imbalance.

When you’re certain they have to stop eating sugar – look at what’s on your plate.
Sugar is a symbol of whatever you want others to stop or start doing. And by others I mean the people you want to change – specifically. People like your partner, colleague, boss, team member, or child. (Think of those specific people . . . now.)

You may have the best of intentions.
Your ideas and advice may be brilliant. But there’s something more primary that you (and I) need to do if we are truly committed to making a difference in the world. If we’re really committed to leading and helping others transform. Here it is:
Before you tell others to stop eating sugar – experiment with not eating it yourself.

Substantive change in the world around you may hinge on whether or not you are willing to do most of the changing. If you’re not willing to change – you’re not leading by example. If you’re not leading by example – your words will be robbed of their power to influence.

Be willing to change.
And then start actually – behaviorally — changing. It won’t take long for you to see how easy it is fall back into the old patterns. To see how the unconscious momentum of the past drives your thoughts, speech, and actions. It’s humbling and illuminating.

Consciously encountering your own unconscious momentum is the beginning of transformation.
Without heroics or judgment, you see the challenge of change up-close-and-personal. As you infuse your own unconscious momentum with loving awareness your own inner defensiveness dissolves.

As the defenses around your heart dissolve something beautiful happens.
The defensiveness in others also dissolves.
As you stop unconsciously manipulating and judging yourself, the world relaxes around you. As you make your own congruence a central part of your service to the world – the world responds in kind.

Your own congruence is part of the congruence of the world around you.
As you live your truth fully, that truth is more present wherever you are.
Of course, this isn’t a magical formula. It’s a path and a practice. But really isn’t that all the magic you need?

So what’s your sugar?

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What are you waiting for?

Once you’ve felt it, you can’t forget. I’m talking about your path – the way of living, being, working, breathing, and creating that expresses your True Life.

When you’re on your path, you can feel it.
It’s grounding and energizing. Serene and sparkling. Each step you take on your path re-connects, as Parker Palmer puts it, ‘soul and role.’
These two need each other.

Your soul needs your role.
And your role desperately needs your soul. Soul without role is a disembodied ideal, a tenuous emotion, an abstraction with no staying power. Role without soul is a deadening routine of culturally conditioned responses that – regardless of external accolades – never satisfy.

Your role is the form through which you express the energies of the soul.
Whether as parent, partner, artist, or leader. The role provides structure and context through which the deep qualities of your soul can touch and be touched by the world.

Walking your path binds these two together.
But not all at once. It’s a step-by-step process. With each step you risk and open to a deeper dimension of your soul. And with the next step you embody that dimension in the details, relationships, and routines of your daily life.

Each step on the path is a discovery.
You can’t predict what will happen – not in the external world, at least. But because there’s uncertainty and unpredictability, there’s huge creativity. You’re never really ready for the next step . . . before you take it. You can’t embody the next level of your path before you take the step.

You can delay your next step.
You may say, “I’m waiting for a better time to take the next step on my path.”
There is always something that could be a little clearer, a little safer, more certain. Waiting for a better moment can be a long, long, wait. It’s in the midst of life’s not-quite-rightness that you step forward. It’s within the uncertain and unpredictable conditions that you act.

You can’t wait until you feel more together.
Because this very togetherness comes after you take the step.
It’s with your own unfinished nature, your own not-quite-rightness that you act. The incompleteness of the world and your own incompleteness fit each other. Your need for wholeness and the world’s need for service complete each other.

What are you waiting for?

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Meditation on Sandy Hook & Transforming The Seeds of Violence

The shooting that occurred at Sandy Hook Elementary school is one of those shattering events that force each of us to question and to seek understanding.

One reader sent an email shortly after the news of the tragedy broke asking:

What can you say to help me make sense of this event?

I can’t say anything to make sense of this.
I believe that seeking to make sense – too quickly – is a way of distancing ourselves from experiencing the impact, the power and the message that is encoded in this experience.

It’s natural to try to distance the mind and heart.
To pull back and protect ourselves when confronted with such rawness and horror. I’ve seen this distancing tendency in myself and my friends.

  • In the spiritual community there is the tendency to weave a metaphysical cocoon around the event, dulling our sensitivity and awareness. This is a way of shutting down – even when it’s framed in the language of opening up.
  • In the political community there’s the tendency to assign blame to the shooter, to one or more political parties, or to the culture. This is a way of lashing out – even when it’s framed in the language of rationality or social justice.
  • For many the distancing reaction arises as the impulse to stay busy with today’s to-do list in order to distract attention from the anguish that keeps scratching at the door of the heart.

What about you?

How does the distancing reaction shape your thoughts, speech, or actions?

It’s absolutely essential to notice, to name, to be aware of these distancing tendencies – if you want to create conditions that preclude this kind of event from happening again.

Because, if what we think, say, or do is based in distancing, I’m afraid it will never lead to the kind of understanding, dialogue, relationships, or actions that will preclude this from happening again.

If what we think, say, or do is based on distancing, we will not fully receive the impact of this event; we will not be changed by this event; and we will not change the conditions that generated it.

Distancing strategies – and we all have them – do not transform the situation.
They’re not designed to do so. Distancing strategies are designed to reinforce our existing worldview and to perpetuate our conditioned ways of being in the world.

This event deserves more than distancing.
It deserves more than formulaic spiritual, psychological, or political understanding.

If facing this event confirms what you already know – I’d like to suggest that you’re missing the point.

If our collective reaction to this event simply prolongs the familiar perspectives, debates, and actions – we’re missing the point.

Understanding can come.
But only as we open to and fully experience all that arises, all that is evoked, all that is revealed as we contemplate this event.

This event asks you, me, all of us:

  • How can you meet this event in a way that does more than confirm what you already know, what you already believe?
  • How can we, individually and collectively, take this event so deeply to heart that it overrides strongly held convictions and undermines heavily ingrained habits of distancing?
  • How can I, you, we meditate upon this tragedy in such a way that creates conditions which preclude it happening again?

These questions can’t be answered by the mind or the emotions – both which are heavily conditioned and rooted in the past.
We can’t look to our conditioning – including our spiritual and political conditioning – to create new results. Relying on conditioned reactions will only perpetuate the conditions that have given rise to this event.

Can you see that if you respond to this event with the conditioned mind and reactive emotions, you will be simply be continuing the legacy of the past.

But how can you do otherwise?
How can I do otherwise?
How can we do otherwise?

What can we do to develop our individual and shared capacity to meet this event – and all experiences of suffering – without the overlay, insulation, and protection that comes from relying on patterns of the past?

All the wisdom traditions agree, that for violence to arise there must be the conditions that foster, support, and give rise to violence.
Collectively we have fostered, supported, and given rise to such conditions. That much is obvious.
But, when we refer to the collective – what are we talking about?
Certainly it is a fabric woven of many individual threads.

You are a thread in the collective fabric as am I.
Neither of us is separate from the collective. The collective is the body, mind, and heart of our inter-being – to use Thich Nhat Hahn’s wonderful phrase. Recognizing the reality of inter-being, begs, again, the question:
What can I do – right now – so that my thread weaves the conditions of peace, of healing, of awakening into the collective fabric?

We need to develop our capacity to meet the gritty, often painful, truth of our experience without being overwhelmed.
Because when we are overwhelmed, the natural reaction of distancing kicks in. And when this reaction kicks in, you and I fall back on our habitual spiritual, psychological, and political patterns.

To let go of these patterns can be terrifying.
But the alternative – the perpetuation of the past and the prolonging of the conditions that create such acts of violence – is more terrifying. Rumi wrote, “The cure for pain is in the pain.”

We need to develop our capacity to enter the pain – with loving awareness.
To enter the pain in our individual body and mind and the pain in our collective soul.
How? Through spiritual practice.

I believe we need to practice a deeper form of meditation.
One that goes beyond stress reduction, beyond the relaxation response, and beyond individual enlightenment.

We need to practice in such a way that we enter into the tangled web of our individual and collective conditioning with loving awareness. Through practice we can – individually and collectively:

  • Untangle the knots of afflictive emotions
  • Still the swirling of confused thoughts

The wisdom traditions all point to a state of consciousness that is capable of healing even the most horrific suffering.
This state of consciousness is within you. Spiritual practice cultivates the psychological, emotional, and physical capacity for you to allow that state of healing presence to do its work.

If you’ve read this far – you know what I mean.
You know that there is a healing presence – a loving awareness – which transcends and can transform your suffering. Whatever is not included in the embrace of loving awareness – whether within you or outside you – will remain in the thrall of the patterns of the past.

Loving awareness is the antidote to distancing.
It embraces everything – not in an sloppy, emotional, group hug – but with the fierce compassion and unwavering clarity that can create the conditions that preclude this from ever happening again.

Loving awareness won’t arise in your individual experience through thinking or emoting.
It won’t take root in our collective experience through thinking or emoting. For loving awareness to transform suffering, you and I have to embody it. This takes practice.

When you and I practice . . . we’ll understand.
When we understand, we will take action and create the conditions that will make it impossible for this to ever happen again.

With love,

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