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The Importance of Confusion

Monday, 27 July 2020

When I begin an on-site training program I start by saying:

“Hi everyone. I’m going to begin with a warning: I hope you’re all comfortable-enough with confusion because I use it as a teaching tool. Confusion is merely your brain attempting to input new information and not finding circuits. Stuff you already know goes down familiar, well-worn circuits and you feel no confusion. So when you’re confused I know you’re learning and it makes me SO happy!

The participants laugh uncomfortably. But then it becomes a sort of gentle contest during the first day – who can be the MOST confused. Invariably someone says,

“Sharon Drew, you’ll be SO proud of me! I’m SOOOO confused!”

And everyone laughs together and claps in knowing agreement.

WHY IS CONFUSION DEEMED BAD?

I wonder why confusion is something to be avoided. Why do we all have to ‘know’ everything? Why can’t we delight in the mystery, the jumble, the dark moving spaces that bring that slight bit of discomfort, a touch of fear and dollop of curiosity?

When we think we ‘know’ something, it’s because we’re using circuits that already exist in our brains to signal our historic thoughts and responses, assuming they accurately represent us even if they end up being inaccurate or biased.

Old beliefs, previous knowledge, habits and assumptions become concretized, and any new ideas become suspect because there’s no precedent for them and our brains work overtime to reject them, even if the new ideas are more cogent. Our brains just love our status quo. Simple. Stable. Quick. Reality? No such thing.

I got a call recently from a Venture Capitalist who owns 15 healthcare apps:

DH: Hi Sharon Drew. I was given your name by X (very powerful, noted person in the healthcare field) who told me you’re a genius, that you develop change models that can help patients follow directions from docs and become actively involved in their own healing process. She says you could create a front end to our apps that would enhance the behavior modification elements we’re using.

SD: Sure, I can do that. I already have a model that might work. Question: why are you using behavior mod? You know it doesn’t work and you must have millions of people failing and getting sicker as they try to use it successfully.

DH: Hahahaha. Right. The whole field knows it doesn’t work. There’s not even any scientific proof that it works. But it’s the only thing we’ve got.

SD: Let’s fix the problem! Let’s test my stuff with your stuff. We’d only need 100 trial people to test it.

DH: Great. But I have one question: has your work ever been written up in a scientific journal?

And he hung up on me.

This was a good example of how science, neuroscience in particular, is so limited by biases that it rarely experiments with ideas the field doesn’t believe relevant (In my particular case, for decades neuroscientists have been researching how our brain circuitry is wired, totally overlooking the need to test how the circuits get triggered to begin with.).

How do new ideas get into the world when they’re contrary to existing myths and norms? Why isn’t ok to be confused and then curious to research, think, debate new ideas? 

As per my friend DH above, entire fields remain committed to researching within the confines of the status quo, even when they suspect, or know, it’s not working! How does something new enter if confusion, or the ‘unknown’, isn’t worth considering? Hint: remember flat earthers? What about radio waves? Or relativity? Did you know only one painting of Cezanne’s was purchased during his life? Or that it took 40 years after the invention of the telephone to begin broad use – using Morse Code instead? Are you aware that initially Bill Gates told his team that he wasn’t convinced the internet had value? Seriously.

WE COULD ALL USE A BIT OF CONFUSION

What we read or enjoy; the colors we see and the words we hear; the friends and jobs and neighborhoods we choose; are restricted to what we agree with and the worlds our brain circuits have created for us – obviously a carefully calibrated world view; obviously restricting a whole lotta world out there we don’t recognize or enjoy or share. We could all use a little confusion now and again.

To allow ourselves to be confused, we’d have to ignore, or at least hide from view, some of our biases. So rather than guess what you’re biases are, I’ll pose some questions of you, because I’m sure confused why you’d rather keep doing what you’re doing rather than face confusion and learn, change, and be enriched:

  • What would you need to believe differently to be willing to rid yourself from some of your biases? Do you know which ones you’d be willing to part with? How do you know your answer isn’t biased?
  • How would you know that any confusion is worth the cost of ‘not knowing’ and being uncomfortable?
  • What issues come up for you when you face the prospect of being confused in an area you’re expert in?
  • Are there any areas of your life or work knowledge that you protect, that you prefer not to feel confusion around because you believe you have all the knowledge you need – and it’s accurate? Would you be willing to examine these to see if there is anything new to learn? Any areas for you to rethink?
  • Think of a topic, an idea that runs counter to your beliefs and spend time with it. No, really. Spend enough time to understand it, and know precisely how it differs from your beliefs. See if you can find any fragment in there that confuses you that you’d be willing to think about for a day or two.

The reason we feel discomfort is because we’re accustomed to having an automatic answer, knowledge at the ready that has been vetted by our brains and accepted and comfortable. But you can create new circuits, and then have a whole new knowledge set. All you need is some curiosity and the willingness to be confused for a bit of time. You’re worth it, no?

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Sharon Drew Morgen is a breakthrough innovator and original thinker, having developed new paradigms in sales (inventor Buying Facilitation®, author NYTimes Business Bestseller Selling with IntegrityDirty Little Secrets: why buyers can’t buy and sellers can’t sell), listening/communication (What? Did you really say what I think I heard?), change management (The How of Change™), coaching, and leadership. Sharon Drew coaches and consults with companies seeking out of the box remedies for congruent, servant-leader-based change in leadership, healthcare, and sales. Her award-winning blog carries original articles with new thinking, weekly. www.sharondrewmorgen.com She can be reached at sharondrew@sharondrewmorgen.com.