Negative capability—the antidote to calcified experience

Our ability to un-know may be the key to future relevance.

Negative capability. It sounds like a bad thing, but it isn’t.
I wish this kind of capability upon leaders today.

Photo by JR Korpa on Unsplash

We have been (and continue to be) afflicted with an ‘alpha-masculine’ archetype of a leader.* This may serve us well in relatively ‘simple’ domains (production lines and algorithmic work), ‘missions’ or ‘sports’ (with their narrowed focus, short time frames and clear metrics for success) or emergencies (literally ‘putting out fires’ and ‘fixing’ things). But, in more complex domains° we need different qualities of leadership in the mix.

* Confident! Bold! Decisive! Fast! Disruptive! Action-Oriented! Performance! Execution! Certainty! Simplicity! Big Goals! Hard Data!
° Which, in our globalised/hyperconnected post-industrial/digital world, everything is.

Increasingly, we need negative capability.

In a recent paper on Knowing and Unknowing Reality (fascinating reading), philosopher Tom Murray summarises negative capability aptly: —

“Poet John Keats coined the term negative capability for the skill or predisposition of tolerating, or even delighting in, uncertainty, ambiguity, unpredictability, and paradox. I.E. ‘when [a person]* is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts — without any irritable reaching after fact and reason’ (1817). As Keats knew, negative capability is useful well beyond the realm of poetry. Negative capability… includes the ‘informed and active humility’ mentioned above, in which the sources of indeterminacy are better understood so that knowledge can be more adaptive and resilient. It is not enough to acknowledge that ‘the map is not the territory’ (an injunction not to confuse theories and ideals for reality), but we must understand as precisely as we can how/where/when/why our maps differ from the territory — impossible to do completely but essential nonetheless.”
* I swapped out ‘man’ for ‘a person’. I’m sure Keats won’t mind.

Murray further states that negative capability has become a crucial tool for navigating the dissonance-creating complexity of modern culture. And thus I maintain: negative capability is vital if you care about notions like ‘enduring relevance’.

‘MEANINGFUL PROGRESS’

There’s a kind of cognitive trick that I inadvertently deploy whenever I talk of ‘meaningful progress’. In the same way someone might say we need ‘Real Leadership’ (wot?), ‘meaningful progress’ sounds good and is hard to argue against. But what does ‘meaningful progress’ mean?

This is the important question, and one worth diving deeper into. (I lay out a process for doing such in my book How to Lead a Quest).

Meaningful progress could be seen as ‘that which brings us closer to enduring relevance’. What is ‘enduring relevance’, then? Enduring relevance is that which meets the current and emerging needs in the ‘market’. But what are the current and emerging needs, really? Oh, is that so? Says who? And what is the ‘market’ anyway, and how is the landscape changing?

Sensing into these questions requires curiosity, intellect and wit — and negative capability. The ability to resist leaping to quick fixes, familiar solutions and default ways of doing things. If our defaults are ‘the options we choose automatically in the absence of viable alternatives’ — quests allow us to seek and find alternative options. Experiments then enable us to determine how viable they may be.

The non-linearity of Quest-Augmented Strategy (illo by dangerlam)

This is Quest-Augmented Strategy. Quests require that we stay in the tension of complexity, ambiguity, paradox and doubt. That we cultivateinklings and hunches, ‘agitating’ over potential paths to meaningful progress.

In this way, the way reveals the way. And negative capability is what helps you stay the (pathless) path.

And yet, and yet… unless we are in an incredibly privileged position, we cannot stay wholly within the domains of quests (and in the ambiguous space of open possibility). There’s still a ‘real world’ with its myriad responsibilities we must attend to. Thus ‘Quest Leadership’ requires a ‘both/and’ mindset.

BOTH/AND

Negative capability is an incredibly unmarketable capability. To champion it in most organisational contexts would be… career limiting. It just doesn’t fit the main accepted narrative. And yet it nonetheless remains a vital skill. Especially in complex domains.

And so: we play the game. We maintain the façade and play our parts, tending to the immediate, ticking the boxes that need to be ticked whilst questioning the boxes and keeping our overall directionality in mind. In this way, we get better at oscillating between negative and positive capabilities. We don’t collapse things into a binary either/or mindset — we ‘both/and’* it. Rather, it’s more like a hermetic metamodern antifragile meta-rational wu wei yin/yang kinda thing (maybe). Or even: a ‘trialectic’ oscillation between knowing and knowing that you don’t know and correcting the faults in your understanding. This is what helps keep your leadership (and your own development) fluid, effective and relevant.

* In this way, ‘quests’ need to be seen as augmenting existing strategy. They’re not an alternative to ‘operational’ matters — they’re a call for BOTH ‘Pioneering Leadership’ AND ‘Operational Excellence’.

Hoho and yet… this all goes against the grain of convention. Our world has an excessive and irrational devotion to ‘simplicity’. We have made a fetish of it, and it’s holding us back.

THE RISK OF REGRESSION

There’s no denying it: our globalised and hyperconnected postindustrial world is more complex than ever — and continues to be more so. To quote the (now ‘old’ but still relevant) Responsive Org Manifesto:

“Everyone and everything is connected. The world has become one giant network where instantly accessible and shareable information rewrites the future as quickly as it can be understood. Fuelled by relentless technological innovation, this accelerating connectivity has created an ever increasing rate of change. As a result, the future is becoming increasingly difficult to predict.”

Couple this with rampant inequality, ecological unsustainability and our multidimensional meaning crisis* — it’s no wonder people hearken toward ‘simpler’ times.°

* I highly recommend John Vervaeke’s ‘Awakening from the Meaning Crisis’ video series on this.
° This is perhaps why the work of Jordan Peterson (author of 12 Rules For Life) is so attractive to some folk — he offers a relatively simpler and more familiar model in which to view the world.† Instead of rising to meet the increasingly complex and nuanced demands of modern life‡ (integrating what we have learnt thus far, as metamodernism might) — we are tempted to regress back to that which was previously known and accepted.
† A regression masked as something contemporary. Here’s a lengthy but incredibly apt tirade against such.
‡ It’s important to note: this is not about ‘adding complexity’ or ‘making things more complex’ — rather, it’s about not denying complexity. Sometimes, the wiser thing to do is ‘release’ complexity (but not ‘reduce’ it).

There’s a parallel here — the same symptomatic responses to the increasing (hyper-) complexity experienced in society also happen within organisations (for these are also part of the fabric of society).

This is experienced as ‘change fatigue’.

‘CHANGE FATIGUE’

This is perhaps the most common contextual premise mentioned in briefing calls with my clients these days. Almost every large organisation is going through some sort of ‘transformation’ process right now (or at least: trumpeting such). Some have been at it for a while. Others are just beginning to heed the call. Most are flailing under the weight of their own legacy and its associated entanglements.

Change is hard. Psychologically, existentially; it’s hard. ‘A clear sense of progress’ is an incredibly motivating factor at work. But this has its own shadow; for if the path to meaningful progress is complex/ambiguous (and it often is), it’s oh so tempting to regress to the simpler ‘known’ things — the default things that provide us with a rich and immediate sense of progress.*

* And thus: a rich delusion of progress.

It’s cognitively, socially and emotionally demanding to navigate complexity and continuous change. And if we’re being honest about transformation (the alchemy of creativity and destruction) — we’ll likely be setting the torch to things that previously served us quite well. Some of your key people may identify deeply with the very things that need to be destroyed. Potentially, their (or your) ‘identity’ is at threat.* It takes quite a level of maturity in our own development (as a person) to find equanimity in this. It also takes a certain… negative capability.

* This is why I harp on about alternative ways of relating to the unfurling process of selfness — of nebulosity, fluidity and regular re-casting/re-imagining of our amorphous identity-clusters. This is as distinct from the more fixed/rigid/calcified notions of identity we are default-encouraged to accrue (‘individualism’).

‘Change fatigue’ comes from a lack of negative capability.

When one isn’t so capable of tolerating complexity, ambiguity, paradox and doubt — when they haven’t acquired this quality, and/or when social-cultural pressures rail against such — we can find ourselves defaulting to past experience, and irritably reaching after simpler ‘known things’.

This is akin to clutching tighter to the railings of your sinking ship.

‘THE FUTURE OF LEADERSHIP’

‘The Future of Leadership’ (and ‘The Future of Work’) remain hot topics in the business conference landscape. They’re evergreen, I suppose.

It’s hard to know what to contribute as a speaker at such events these days. Many people appreciate ‘positive sentiment’: to be reminded that they are ‘special and unique’; to be reassured and reaffirmed, to generally ‘feel good’ and have their hidden biases subtly confirmed. They especially want to hear about what’s unchanging (or ‘eternal’), so as to feel more secure about their place in our unfurling cosmos. This is all understandable, given the inherent uncertainty of our world and the insecurities we all harbour. We all have our battles, and we’re all doing the best we can — and we all need all the help we can get.

Other folk love a good ontological/ideological spanking. They want to be jolted (disaffirmed) out of their comfortable/complacent worldview, so that they might consider things from new perspectives (and, in doing so: enrich/update or — after consideration — reaffirm their own tentative ontological stance). They want to hear about what’s changing (or ‘emerging’), so that they don’t fall too prey to the delusions of ‘certainty’ or ‘security’.* These folk are much rarer, but (sometimes) make for wiser leaders.

* At this point I can’t help but recommend The Wisdom of Insecurity by Alan Watts.

And so thus if I were speaking on the topic of ‘The Future of Leadership’ — I’d want to talk about things like negative capability: of how leaders ought to embrace ‘both/and’ thinking, demonstrate greater fluidity and meta-rationality, and to be more epistemologically humble. I’d want to encourage leaders to wield doubt more effectively — to be more curious, courageous and wise. I’d want to suggest that the mythical ‘future of leadership’ requires a more fluid and networked relationship to power, and a more transparent and responsive relationship to information (and society). I’d also want to suggest that the future of leadership requires that established leaders dismantle some* of the very structures that got them into power in the first place — whilst, somehow, meeting both the current and emerging needs in the ‘market’.

* But not necessarily all. And this point is more for ‘legacy’ organisations with rigid hierarchies.

Basically: I’d want to deliver a complex, highfalutin and abstract message of little immediate practicality that few folk would want to hear.

This is not a good strategy.

AN INFINITE GAME

Luckily, my wants aren’t so simple or singular: there’s a bigger game at play. An infinite game, wherein our purpose is not to ‘win’ but rather: to continue the play. And thus, dear fellow mind, you and I must be savvy with how we champion and employ negative capability. Particularly when amongst players swept up in more finite games.

My recent podcast interview with the Andy Fallshaw (CEO of Bellroy) offers very real insight into a ‘future of leadership’ that’s happening right now. Andy demonstrates a rich alchemy of ‘both/and’ positive and negative capability, with deft ‘attunement’ to complexity and emergence. It’s worth listening to: I think you’ll love it.

But for now, my suggestions are twofold.

For the confident and cocksure: enjoy it while it lasts. You might even get away with it your whole life. Good for you. But also know: it’s quite likely you’re missing important perspectives, and that your heroic and decisive actions may be causing real harm. So, perhaps: soften your stance. Loosen your grip on the finite games of “who’s right”* — and lean more into the infinite game of “making life wonderful”.° A little more curiosity about where you might be wrong (or misinformed) might help you find a wiser (and more sustainable) path. You really don’t need to have all the answers — you don’t need to be the smartest person in the room. It’s okay to hesitate or admit you don’t know. Heck: it’s more than okay — it’s a capability worth cultivating.

* The game in which everyone loses.
° I’m referencing both James Carse and Marshall Rosenberg here.

For the hesitant and doubtful: know that ‘choosing to not choose to do something’ is still a choice — and this has consequences, too. Negative capability is a vital strength: but you can’t spend all your time in ambiguity and uncertainty (much to my chagrin). At some point you’ll need to actualise, for indecision and inaction can likewise cause or allow harm to perpetuate. And besides: ‘doing’ is its own form of thinking. And it is possible for you to both/and this. To oscillate between negative and positive capabilities.

‘INFORMED NAÏVETE’

The juxtaposition of both positive and negative capabilities allows us to view life through the lens of an ongoing proto-synthesis.* In this way, we can attempt to ‘make coherent’ our experience and expertise — the sum of all we know — into a serviceable ‘story’. We know it’s just a story — and that it may not even be the ‘right’ one. But we prefer it to no story at all — it’s how we make sense of the world.

* Gratitudes to Hanzi Freinacht who introduced me to this concept. You know I love his book ‘The Listening Society’. I’m currently reading his new book ‘The Nordic Ideology’ and shall be sharing it with you in depth soon.

And so we proceed, knowing that our synthesised ‘sense’ of the world — our story — is only ever a prototype. A proto-synthesis. It must be open-ended and continually revised, for it is never absolute or complete. But, with curiosity, empathy and wit — the ‘informed and active humility’ of negative capability — our knowledge and sense of the world can be more adaptive, antifragile and relevant.

As much as I wish it otherwise, negative capability will likely remain in the shadows. It’s the hidden capability of artists, poets, innovators, creators and great leaders; a quality for all of us to cultivate.

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