Uncertainty and the Unknown

How often I found where I should be going only by setting out for somewhere else. ~ Buckminster Fuller

A false sense of security is the only kind there is. ~ Michael Meade


Being in the work of reimagining education, I encounter uncertainty on a daily basis. I am confronted often with what seems like a bias toward certainty and a negativity toward, and sometimes even a downright rejection of, the unknown. Years ago I heard a well-intentioned teacher prepare his students for a community science fair by saying, “When a community member asks you a question, responding with ‘I don’t know’ is unacceptable.” I remember cringing inside, thinking that life contains much more grey area and blurred lines, than not.


Of course, too much of anything isn’t a good thing. There is a place for the focus, direction, and clarity that certainty can bring, but when we avoid the unknown and move too quickly into certainty, we miss so much. We can end up making decisions motivated by fear of the unknown and choose directions that are too small and not quite right for us. We equate success with “knowing the answer” and we don’t learn how to fail. We miss the treasures (surprises, insights, lessons) that are often only found by being lost for a bit. We become less curious and forget how to ask bold and creative questions. Our creativity wanes, as we become less tolerant of the discomfort uncertainty can bring.




Education often focuses on the answers; on breadth over depth; on testing for correct answers rather than assessing growth by strengthening skills; and on pressuring young people to find the “right path” when they are 18 years old. I recently read this article in the New York Times from Frank Bruni. In it, he talks about how we are getting it all wrong with our young people when it comes to the college admissions process. He talks about all kinds of reasons for this, including this conversation he had with a retired college faculty member:


“We’re sending the message that success is about precise allegiance to a painstaking script, when just as often it’s about a nimble response to an unforeseen opportunity.
Barry Schwartz, who taught psychology at Swarthmore from 1971 to 2016, said in an interview just before he retired that his current students “want to be given a clear and unambiguous path to success.”
“They want a recipe,” he told me. “And that’s the wrong thing to be wanting. Recipes create cooks. They don’t produce chefs.”

How might we begin to embrace, practice, and eventually trust, uncertainty? Though it can be uncomfortable, and even scary, I think it’s time we try. Maybe eat something different for breakfast. Take another route to work. Step off the known path in the forest and walk through the mud. Ask more questions and wait for the response of another. There are so many ways we can daily live into lives that invite more uncertainty, curiosity, creativity, and flexibility.


When we practice uncertainty as adults, we show our young people that there is value in not knowing. One of the most profound teachers of my life is the Irish philosopher, John O’Donohue. He writes, “The question holds the lantern.” Let us be brave, let our lives be questions more than answers, and let us be lanterns for each other.

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