creative-power-of-not-knowingLet’s face it, as marketers we’re in a consultative business. We’re the “paid experts.” We expect ourselves to know and to have the answers; we think our clients expect it too. Often we view not knowing the answer as a weakness, a vulnerability, a threat to our competence.

Socrates said, “The only true wisdom is in knowing you know nothing.”

Is it realistic — in this rapidly shifting landscape of advertising and marketing — that we can promise we have “been there, done that, and therefore know precisely what to do to support your brand, marketing or PR challenge?” And if we are so foolish as to overtly make that pledge, can we live up to it over the long term?

What’s underneath the search for an agency? Is it to find an “all-knowing” team of experts, or “mostly-knowing” partners a client can count on through the inevitable unknowns, who appear capable of supporting business results, and who exhibit a particular kind of confidence that brings a sense of ease to the work and the relationship?

A façade of “always-knowing” isn’t necessary to project confidence and competence. Think about it. If always-knowing isn’t possible, then pretending it is is not an honest foundation for a trusted and long-lasting relationship. If your agency culture is “we always have the answers,” you’re set up for a big fail, assuming you’re actually invited to engage with a client from upon your lofty pedestal.

Transparency is the new way, so take a breath and relax into the space of “not-knowing.” I promise it’s ripe with potential and rewards.

When the mind already “knows” the answer, it’s no longer in a state that’s engaged and receptive to new information, insights and most importantly, ideas — the currency of our industry. The opposite of this state, the ability to relax with not-knowing, is what ancient wisdom calls “beginner’s mind.” At our agency it’s a core value, something our employees and clients find refreshing and in the end, productive and profitable. It’s good for business.

Let’s look at the two dominant categories of “not-knowing.” Okay, maybe there are three, but no need to cover the version that emanates from the perpetually bewildered types. That’s not you!

  1. Not-knowing based on a lack of experience or knowledge
  2. Not-knowing based on no clear best response, often born of life’s larger dilemmas. (Do I need to let this employee go? This strategy is logical, but it doesn’t feel right. My kid just failed math, again. What do I do?)

No matter which type of not-knowing is your “flavor du jour,” taking a mindful approach will bring clarity over time and can even immediately open up your powerful, internal creative source. We dare to be authentic when we say “I don’t know. Let’s explore it.” It’s how we reinforce credibility with our clients and confidence in ourselves.

Mindful of “Not-knowing”

Free your mind from the subtle — or gripping — fear of realizing you don’t have the answer, or perhaps the background and experience to respond, on the spot.

Where does that fear originate? It’s likely some version of believing you’re not sufficient, you’re not enough. It’s a judgment that causes the mind to contract and limit our potential and what we have to offer. It easily becomes a habit, accompanied by coping strategies that keep us in a loop of being less than who we are. This is not our true self, our capable and occasionally brilliant self. It’s some fraction of us that we self create when we aren’t mindful of all that’s present. We’re just a slice of the whole, because the whole of us can’t show up when we reject any part of our experience.

Here’s what mindfulness can look like in the face of not-knowing. It’s a four-step process to staying open:

  1. R E A L L Y ? Check in with yourself. Do you have the answer, or are there things you need to ask or go find out?
  2. If you don’t know, can you recognize and relax in the not-knowing?
  3. Can you allow the feeling of not-knowing to be present and to experience it fully? This means meeting it with something that’s called non-judgmental awareness.
  4. And finally, can you not identify “your self” with the “not knowing?” When we confuse who we are with our stories and emotions, we get smaller, along with our thinking and creative capacities. Through mindfulness, we change our relationship to not-knowing, and discover it’s not a weakness and it’s not who we are. It just is.

Practice this, and you’ll ask smart questions, be authentic, absorb new learning, gain important insights and most of all, tap your full potential for your agency, your client and yourself.

Try this inquiry to help you shift into a place of personal and creative power.

Reconnect with the experience of not-knowing. Call to mind a memory, recent or distant, where you simply didn’t know, yet felt you had to have the answer, be the expert. Let that memory be fully present and meet it with curiosity. Notice the thoughts and emotions and see if you can locate the response your body has to them. What are the physical sensations? Now look to see if there a story present, some version of, “I’m not enough.” A standard you’re unconsciously holding? A belief you may not have known you were carrying? Now (here’s the paradox) meet this belief with a deeper inquiry, the inquiry of a beginner’s mind. Let the simple phrase “I don’t know” dissolve a belief that’s limited YOU and your creative power. Repeat the process by introducing “I don’t know” as often as it takes to feel the mind relax its grip around the your personal unexamined versions of “not enough.”

Relax into wisdom at work.

Originally published Aug 6, 2012 1:00:50 AM, updated July 28 2017

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Creativity