Negative Capability: A Tool for Embracing Uncertainty

Every civilization thinks it’s at the forefront of science and technology. But the ideas we hold as truths today will likely be disproven or laughed at in decades or centuries to come. Just look at the primitive days of nutritional science, for example. It wasn’t that long ago that sailors were still dying of scurvy—we didn’t even know vitamins existed until the early 1900s. So, we shouldn’t grow too certain of our ideas or approaches to life. Whether it’s a specific diet or career goal, being open to change is fundamental to our success and happiness.

Change is hard. We don’t like approaches that threaten our core beliefs or lead us into uncertain territory. Which is why we need to actively cultivate an open-minded attitude. There are plenty of mental models—basic tools to help us solve problems and think creatively—that we can use to do this. One tool I’ve been testing out lately is called negative capability.

What Is Negative Capability?

Negative capability was coined by John Keats. Keats was one of the most influential poets of all time. He mentioned the phrase once in a letter to his brothers in 1817. It’s since been applied to a wide range of fields such as philosophy, politics, writing, and psychoanalysis. Robert Green described it best in his book Mastery:

Truly creative people in all fields can temporarily suspend their ego and simply experience what they are seeing, without the need to assert a judgment, for as long as possible. They are more than ready to find their most cherished opinions contradicted by reality. This ability to endure and even embrace mysteries and uncertainties is what Keats called negative capability.

That sounds a little abstract at first. So think about it this way: negative capability is valuing learning over being right. It’s the ability to drop your ego and consider different points of view or approaches when problem-solving. And when we do hit the inevitable roadblocks, it’s being comfortable with the uncertainty. When we let go of a problem, our minds are free to think in a much more creative way.

Why Is Negative Capability Important?

You wouldn’t restrict yourself to doing the same workout day in, day out for the rest of your life. Besides being about as interesting as watching paint dry, your results would stall. Your body would have no reason to continue to adapt and grow stronger. But when it comes to the way we think, most of us are operating off the model we developed in early adulthood.

Entertaining the same thoughts and ways of thinking is a necessary shortcut for our brains to navigate the complexity of life. But it becomes our greatest weakness if we never try out different approaches.

When we get stuck in our ways (whether that’s a particular diet or coaching style), we shut ourselves off to personal development. But if we’re willing to entertain opposing views and see how they feel and fit, our options for problem-solving and creative thinking grow immensely.

Negative capability is just one of the many tools we can use to shake up our way of thinking. It helps us progress in any field by prioritising life-long learning. It fosters an attitude of openness by constantly challenging our beliefs. And when we seek out what is unfamiliar and incorporate it into our lives, we expand our world and enrich our points of view.

The more I learn, the more I realize how much I don’t know.
— Albert Einstein

How to Put Negative Capability Into Practice  

First up, negative capability is a tool that we use to temporarily open our minds up to new possibilities. Apply it when you’re stuck or need to get creative. It’s not intended to be used for everyday decisions. This would overload our mental RAM and put us into a state of paralysis by analysis.

Using a mental model like negative capability is all about practice. It’s not easy, but nothing of value ever is.

Before you can use it, you need a trigger to remind you to practice. For example, you could stick reminders up around the house on post-it notes. For one week, every time you hit a major problem or need to look at something from a different perspective, test it out. If you apply it enough, it’ll become second nature.   

Here are some of the ways I’ve tried to apply it in my life:

  • Break up your normal way of thinking in any way you can. Read books from unrelated fields, try out opposing approaches to fitness and nutrition and see what works best for you.
  • In your work, continuously seek out styles or methods that are different to your own. Test them out and keep what works.
  • When working on a problem, ask yourself this question: what if I did the opposite of my current approach?
  • Try to see things from other people’s perspectives. Don’t get caught up in doing things the ‘right’ way. Focus on doing what works.
  • When receiving criticism, don’t respond immediately. I know, this is hard. But if we do, our egos usually jump in and we get defensive. Let it sit with you and come back to it after some thought. The criticism might be useful or it might not be. But if you don’t at least consider it for a moment, you’ll never know.
  • Stay curious. At some point, you need to make a decision and choose an approach or draw conclusions. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t remain curious. Be open to changing and challenging your current beliefs.

Do Something—Anything!

Don’t just consume information. If you’ve read this far, I’m assuming you find this post useful. You’ve now got two choices: 1) close the screen and think ‘that’s nice’ and move on with your day. Or 2) commit to test driving negative capability for a week or so. Add reminders so you don’t forget. And as Nike says, just do it! Decision creates action. Action creates results.

I Need Your Help

I’ve also got a huge favour to ask of you. No, I don’t want your money. But will happily accept it! I’m trying to get this blog off the ground and I can’t do it without your help. Simply sharing this post on social media (you’re so close to the share buttons—look down below) or emailing it to a friend makes a HUGE difference in my life. In return, I promise we can be best mates and you can reach out anytime. Seriously. If you need help with any health, fitness, or Jedi Knight goals you can contact me here.

You can also share some love by adding a comment below. Let me know what your best tips and tricks are for keeping an open mind and thinking creatively.

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