It’s okay to not know where you are in your career or personal life. And, not only is unknowing acceptable, it’s desirable. Unlike a walk in the wilderness, where it’s important to know your way, appreciate career or personal life wandering at certain times. When wandering in your career or personal life happens, cherish this time for greater self-understanding. While the wilderness holds dangers that could prevent you from physically coming home, short-term career or personal unknowing is an opportunity to come home to your values and aspirations.
The Unknowing place
Visualize your state of being lost in your career or personal life. Assume you’re adrift in a sailboat on a featureless sea. No land is in sight or wind to fill your sails to move you toward your destination. Water is the color of the grey, cloudy sky, a seamless blend with the horizon. You’re in the muddy middle. The sea bottom can’t be seen and the shoreline is unclear. Discomfort and curiosity are your companions.
Meet your discomfort
To alleviate discomfort we may turn to an expert, a person with experience. We want to know where we are going and how we will get there. We believe the expert may help. He/she has training in similar situations. The expert may be necessary in some circumstances. However, he is unlikely to have exact experience suitable for your needs. She may also be blinded by her knowledge, with advice and recommendations based on her beliefs. The expert may be in a trap of not knowing what he doesn’t know. Consult an expert if necessary but only after acknowledgement of your curiosity.
Explore your curiosity
The expert tells. The curious person self-reflects. When the expert gives advice, teaches or recommends, he provide solutions. When we reflect, on the other hand, we draw on our inner knowledge to understand our current circumstances. We reflect on what we already know to be true for us. We self-reflect when we:
Leave your comfort zone
We are creatures of consistency. Our brains are genetically wired to seek the status quo. When we are in the unknowing place we move beyond what is normal for us, our comfort zone. Beyond our comfort zone we face change. Change implies potential danger as described by Daniel Kahneman in “Thinking Fast and Slow.” He names intuition as a trigger for apprehension when we are confronted with change.
Return to our visualization of the unknowing place. Assume we are accustomed to a fast pace and consistently aware of our destination. When we drift on our featureless sea, genetically derived danger signals flash. We feel urgency to find direction. Our inability to see the bottom or the distant shore calls for action. In our near panic, any action will do.
Steven Covey in “Seven Habits of Highly Effective People,” suggests that we grow our self-knowledge with our level of not knowing. When we are adrift on our featureless sea, we maximize our ability to find solutions, which are appropriate for our situation. When we leave our comfort zone we enter an area of lack of knowledge. At this edge of chaos, between what is known and unknown, maximum learning occurs.
Seek the edge of chaos when your vision is unclear. Stay as long possible in the muddy middle. Avoid immediate action, and appreciate the potential for greater self-understanding.
Appreciate the muddy middle
The muddy middle is a place for personal growth. We access our inner knowing from the muddy middle when we self-reflect on when we have been in the muddy middle before. We want to know what we learned from our prior experience.
Because we understand the importance to stay outside our comfort zone as long as possible, we ask, “What is good about what I have learned and how can I get more of it.” Edward Jacobson in “Appreciative Moments,” describes this technique of self-reflection as appreciative inquiry. When we appreciate our current situation in terms what is good for us, and how to get more of it, we transform our knowledge from solutions to previous problems into actions for the present.
Practice transformational learning
The essence of transformational learning is application of the lessons from prior solutions to our current situation. In our career, for example, we may learn how to manage relationships with subordinates through respect and active listening. We transform our knowledge from this experience when we show respect and use active listening to manage relationships with peers or our boss. Furthermore, if we apply what we learn in our work lives to improve our relationship with family and friends; we practice transformational learning for betterment in work and life.
Calling the expert for advice, in our example, voids transformational learning because we substitute the expert’s prescriptive recommendation for what we know works for us. We have inner knowledge about similar situations. We transform this knowledge to our current situation to develop appropriate solutions for our current needs. Cherish your unknowing state as an opportunity for personal growth.
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Richard Wilberg, MS, PLCC, ACC
Life Coach for Personal Fulfillment and Career Success
About the Author
Richard Wilberg is a coach, musician, photographer, and former business leader who lives in Madison, Wisconsin.