Whenever I watch sport commentators on television throw in facts and descriptions from matches played 8 to 10 or 15 years ago, I can’t help but be impressed. You could replay the footage from the 1978 World Cup, but to draw from memory the type of kick made by a particular player on a particular side in an unscripted discussion is, to me, mind boggling. Media commentators prepare points of discussion to a certain extent, but to offer an example on the fly in such detail, shows the extent of their bank of knowledge and deep understanding of technique and skill.
For most of us, we may have specialized areas of interest, but the extent of our knowledge overall is minimal. If there is something unknown, the first impulse is to find the answer. This usually occurs in front of a screen. It is too easy to search for the name of that song that you can’t remember, or a successful example of a similar project done by another company. All you have to do is type your question into Google, and it will even help you out with automatic suggestion of what it is you are looking for. This phenomena has made the feeling of not-knowing, and to not have an answer (even an inkling), somewhat unacceptable. Google it! We say, and quickly fill that empty space with a search result.
An anecdote shared by the cartoonist Tim Kreider in the New York Times touches on this. Before he heard punk rock music, Kurt Cobain used to study images of punk rock musicians and imagine what their music would sound like. Imagine if Cobain had not allowed his imagine to percolate, instead using his mobile phone to tap into Spotify.
The effects of a quick-fix mentality is crippling to invention and ingenuity. We feel compelled to enforce solutions with speed and therefore defer to existing ideas. This creates more Like-Like scenarios, where things look, feel, move, taste and sound similar. We also believe that information will present solutions. This isimmediately disappointing because data can inform but it cannot inspire. More information about how people behave typically leads us to a trap of creating what we think the consumer wants, not necessarily what is surprising, an improvement or the best.
The American author Donald Bathelme talks about writing as a process of not-knowing. A writer may have an intuition of what may happen in a story, but great writing requires a degree of surrender. In an essay he explains, “The not-knowing is crucial to art, is what permits art to be made. Without the scanning process engendered by not-knowing, without the possibility of having the mind move in unanticipated directions, there would be no invention.”
Someone who knows about invention is the British designer Thomas Heatherwick. You may not be familiar with his name, but you will definitely recognize his work (i.e. Seed Catheral at Expo 2010, 2012 Olympic cauldron). Heatherwick also speaks of not-knowing, and describes approaching a project akin to solving a crime. One has to interrogate the situation, eliminate possibilities and explore new ones, before analyzing the best solution with what you are left with.
Not-knowing is quite different from uncertainty and it is not about disregarding information. It is about being open to discovery and the possibility that the final result may be quite different than anyone expected. Calling on the ideas of others will not make what you do less good as a result, but it will make it less significant. To be ideas people we have to practice coming up with ideas, not derivatives of other styles and comments. We need to give ourselves the opportunity to not know. To look at things without fear of expectation. Outcomes should always be supported by a robust process of interrogation but never be determined by pre-conceived notions.