Not-knowing discussion #3: Fear is the mindkiller (summary)
This is a summary of “Fear is the mindkiller,” the third session in the InterIntellect series on not-knowing, which happened on 16 March 2023, 2000-2200 CET.
The fourth session is about why we fall into the trap of using the word “risk” to describe non-risk situations of not-knowing, and the problems that creates. “Misnaming the Beasts” will happen on 20 April 2023, from 2000-2200 CET (though the time might be moved up to 1800-2000 CET). More information and tickets available here. As usual, get in touch if you want to come but the $15 ticket price isn’t doable — I can get you sorted.
All session summaries.
Third session reading: Why not-knowing feels so hard.
The jumping-off point was observing that humans weirdly treat not-knowing in some situations (e.g. mystery films, detective fiction books) as “good”/“fun” and in other situations (e.g. leadership, learning, careers) as “bad”/“painful.”
This happens because we evolved thousands of years ago to respond physiologically to situations of not-knowing as if they are stressors — our bodies go on high alert (the fight-or-flight response) when we face not-knowing.
However, today social and cultural norms condition us to associate the feeling of this bodily stress response with “pain”/“bad” for some of the most important situations of not-knowing we face (like leadership, navigating a career, or learning). In turn, this means that we are often in denial or paralysis about not-knowing precisely when we most need to acknowledge it, relate clearly to it, and act to figure things out.
This mind-body nexus — the combination of evolved response and sociocultural conditioning — is a powerful blocker that prevents us from thinking clearly and acting properly about not-knowing. My working theory is that understanding this mind-body nexus is one key to being able to recondition ourselves for a better relationship with not-knowing.
- Actively balancing between extremes is vital in relating to not-knowing … but is really hard. There is a pattern in the difficulty of relating to not-knowing: It’s easy to be at extremes when faced with not-knowing but the sweet spot is to be in the difficult middle. Examples of extremes that came up:
- Being fatalist and not planning at all < > Planning too much to be sensible for an unpredictable future
- Focusing only on closed-ended sets of potential outcomes (exploitation) < > Focusing only open-ended sets of potential outcomes (exploration)
- Focusing only on stable end states < > Focusing only on dynamic intermediate states
- Domain-specific conditioning for not-knowing happens frequently. This suggests more generally that if we can be conditioned to avoid/dislike not-knowing, it should be possible to condition (or recondition) us to like/thrive in not-knowing. Examples of this kind of conditioning are usually specific to a particular domain of activity and are about “capacity building” to handle “whatever the domain can throw at you”:
- Military training: US Special Operations is very good at training for combat in high uncertainty environments, to the point where it becomes a comparative advantage.
- Mountaineering guide training: Rehearsing potential high-stress scenarios (being stuck backcountry with a significant delay to planned return) and training on a large toolkit of ways to stay attached to ice/rock.
- Chef training: Long experience and training in using tools and ingredients makes it easier for cooks to handle unpredictable high-load services without getting “into the weeds.”
- Internal and contextual conditions can make it harder to have a good relationship to not-knowing:
- Suppressing instead of acknowledging not-knowing (the idea of “shaking it out”).
- Insisting on controlling the uncontrollable. (On which, also see humility as a mindset below.)
- Constructing stories/narratives about not-knowing that are unpleasant or worrying.
- Perceiving/believing that there is a lot at stake from not-knowing.
- Confronting not-knowing that is extremely protracted or which has no clear end.
- Games and rules change unexpectedly. It’s impossible to act without making assumptions about the rules of the game we’re playing. However, those rules can change at unpredictable times and in unpredictable ways, and the not-knowing that this creates is particularly hard to relate to. This seems connected to the problem of having equanimity and being happy in the face of not-knowing. Examples that came up:
- Knowing how to react if you win or lose a particular competition, but not if you win it and then the competition is canceled after the fact.
- The US army fighting by the strategic model of chess in Vietnam, while the Chinese Communists were fighting by the strategic model of weiqi.
- Understanding what game is being played and what rules apply is crucial for being able to deal with not-knowing. Being unable to see when the game or the rules have changed leads to its own bad consequences. Examples that came up:
- Firefighters who would failed to escape fires because they didn’t abandon their equipment (i.e., the game has changed from fighting the fire to escaping the fire).
- Combat special forces who become highly adapted to high velocity combat situations and then cannot adapt when put back in more stable environments outside the battlefield.
- Refugees from highly unstable countries when they move to more stable countries and are unable to integrate socioeconomically.
- Very robust domain-specific conditioning for not-knowing seems to make it harder to recognise when the game itself has changed.
- Conditioning for not-knowing seems to need to happen on two levels. This is related to double-loop learning.
- Domain-level: Toolkits/capabilities for dealing with the concrete types of not-knowing in that domain.
- General: Toolkits for “learning what game you’re playing and what rules apply” and detecting when game/rules have changed.
- Some mindsets/practices/capacities seem to help with avoiding denial/paralysis in the face of not-knowing. But these are themselves difficult practices:
- Mindfulness and presence in the moment (this relates to the concept of beginner mind).
- Humility to know that not everything can be controlled and most things cannot be controlled.
- Frequent exposure to diverse and challenging environments.
- Reframing not-knowing as source of learning/potential change (and away from not-knowing as source of fear).
- Tools that seem to work in some contexts to improve how people relate to situations of not-knowing:
- Stress inoculation training (in a military special operations context; it also exists in PTSD context)
- Frameworks for clarifying what is known, so that it is easier (both cognitively and emotionally) to deal with what is not-known.
- Time horizon planning
- Tradeoffs articulation during goal-setting (Boris).
- A mindful practice of intentionally diversifying range of experiences and perspectives as a way to promote beginner mind (idk).