The last time I felt a deep, visceral moment of true knowing, understanding I was in the right place at the right time, was when I completely let go. I was driving through Yellowstone with no plan for the day, particularly mesmerized by the color blue. I could see the moon’s faded skeleton even at high noon. Quake Lake was the color of a mood ring when you’re feeling calm, changing with the road curving around it. It was my first time on this road. It was my first time smelling the mountains from a large valley beside them. I knew nothing beyond the safety of my own mind. And in that, the moment was quintessential.
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi wrote about finding the “optimal experience” in his book Flow. In excruciating depth, he describes how flow, being in the zone, is found via “total involvement with life” and how it can be disrupted and modified. The endless benefits of finding flow is also featured as Wit & Delight’s February 2021 theme, highlighting what happens when we surrender ourselves fully to an activity that excites us.
However, what happens when we experience the opposite of fully immersing ourselves? What happens when the newness and lack of knowledge make us uncomfortable? What happens when we can’t get in the zone; when we’re experiencing the *opposite of flow*?
This immersed mental state hasn’t been on my agenda lately. I started a new job. And, to set the truth down softly, I suck at it so far. I don’t know what I’m doing. I improvise constantly and I have said, “I don’t know the answer to that” more than once in a single meeting. The most humbling part? I’m thirty-three years old. I’m ten years into my career. But, in order to round out my resume, I’m taking the plunge to try something different. And it’s proving my vulnerabilities live on the surface of my skin hair.
I’m thirty-three years old. I’m ten years into my career. But, in order to round out my resume, I’m taking the plunge to try something different. And it’s proving my vulnerabilities live on the surface of my skin hair.
Also, we’re a year into a pandemic. Finding flow through travel, sharing memories with friends, discovering new things, and listening to live music has been wiped quite startlingly from our lives. Finding flow suddenly takes an effort that is twofold and we’re equally pressed by the darkness and sadness of loss. Exploring a creative state of mind feels far, far away. And I find it so difficult to be fully immersed in something I love.
Csikszentmihalyi writes, “The foremost reason that happiness is so hard to achieve is that the universe was not designed with the comfort of human beings in mind.” And he’s right. We’re not always fully immersed in something, leaving us feeling empty and unenergized. The bottom line is, we can’t be fully immersed in things we are unclear of; what we do not know stunts us a little.
My job doesn’t make me feel energized, likely because I’m constantly struggling to figure out what the hell I’m doing; the deeper truth that I’m making money for a giant company. I’m experiencing a pandemic for the first time. I feel a lack of drive I haven’t felt in my entire life so it feels like I’m half-assing everything. Where’s the strength in that?
In Sasha Duncan’s insightful Medium article called “The Art of Not Knowing,” she writes, “Succulent is the satisfaction of having the answers. To know, and to have known—all along, perhaps—is our baseline of control. If we know something to be true, or if we make it true in our minds, we then hold power over it. Depending on our will, we can shape it, shift it, or even break it.”
Knowledge is power. Take it from history, attributed all the way back to 1597 and Francis Bacon. Thomas Jefferson even used the phrase in his correspondence. Society has defined it to be true as long as we have known. To know things is to have control over them. What we know, we can create on our own, enjoy within our own depths, and blend how we please. This “sense of knowledge” works in a million ways. Even in high school, I knew I was going to get an education, get married, have kids. I was going to check all the boxes because that’s what I understood to be true.
It’s why I ended up at a college. It must be why college exists at all. Knowledge is a good salary. It’s a home with a family. Knowledge, in our culture, is the sole reason we are successful. Without a cultivated plan, what would we do?
That’s the problem. Why does “knowing everything” have to be what defines our life? Why do checking boxes and “making the next appropriate step” have to be our tell-all? Life isn’t a grocery list.
Knowledge is a concept. When someone asks you, “Do you know what you’re doing?” you don’t always have to say “Yes.” And when you don’t say yes, it doesn’t mean you’re any less powerful or good. Although the lack of awareness keeps us anxious, “not knowing” keeps us curious.
So, knowledge is a concept. When someone asks you, “Do you know what you’re doing?” you don’t always have to say “Yes.” And when you don’t say yes, it doesn’t mean you’re any less powerful or good. Although the lack of awareness keeps us anxious, “not knowing” keeps us curious. Going beyond our ego to understand the world around us makes us better humans. It’s why I travel. It’s why I write. It’s why I listen to music. It’s why I took this goddamn job that scares the living daylights out of me every single day. It’s why I might not keep this job forever. It’s why I (try) to take risks.
It’s embarrassing and scary to not know what’s going on. But that doesn’t mean potential is lost because of the lack of control. It doesn’t mean we can’t influence the space we’re trying to fill in the midst of that struggle. We do not need to know everything to be powerful. In fact, our lack of knowledge makes us more open to possibilities and new solutions.
“If we allow them to, they [jobs] can suck out the marrow of our lives, leaving only feeble husks.” Csikszentmihalyi writes. “But like everything else, work and leisure can be appropriate for our needs. People who learn to enjoy their work, who do not waste their free time, end up feeling that their lives as a whole have become much more worthwhile.”
I think there’s so much we can learn from the lack of true flow. What we do not know is not wasted time. My discomfort, my lack of flow, has made me a more gracious person. I can learn to turn my unknowing frustrations into openness; the understanding that I’m not wasting my time blatantly failing at things.
When we don’t know what we’re doing, we become more daring; it could be proof that we’re happy. Consider the pandemic. Because we’re experiencing something scary and new, we instantly go back to old movies and T.V. shows and books and entertainment. Familiarity is a crutch, a comfort blanket wrapped like a swaddle around our discomfort. When the pandemic is long gone, I have a distant dream that we’re going to embrace unfamiliarity. We’re going to be wild and try new things. We’re going to run far from our home and the unknown is going to be a celebration in itself.
What we do not know is not wasted time. My discomfort, my lack of flow, has made me a more gracious person. I can learn to turn my unknowing frustrations into openness; the understanding that I’m not wasting my time blatantly failing at things.
Every day is not going to be a drive along the edges of Quake Lake. Life is, at its best, bad most of the time. Life won’t ever show itself the same, which is why knowledge is merely a flashing impression. We have no control at all. We don’t even, completely, know what we do know. And in the freedom of not knowing, there can be equal parts euphoria and comfort. Because we cannot know anything fully.
I encourage you to list out all of the things you do not know. And, for some reason, I can promise you—it will give you an odd sense of power. Here’s a little list of things I do not know:
WHEW! That felt good. Write about how you don’t know what you’re doing and it will quickly become a laughable speck in the universe. I’m still curious about all of these things and I will spend a lot of my life trying to figure them out. That’s the beauty and ugliness of life anyway.
We’ll close with Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi.
“Contrary to what we usually believe, moments like these, the best moments in our lives, are not the passive, receptive, relaxing times—although such experiences can also be enjoyable, if we have worked hard to attain them. The best moments usually occur when a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile. Optimal experience is thus something that we make happen […] For each person there are thousands of opportunities, challenges to expand ourselves.”
Brittany Chaffee is an avid storyteller, professional empath, and author. On the daily, she gets paid to strategize and create content for brands. Off work hours, it’s all about a well-lit place, warm bread, and good company. She lives in St.Paul with her baby brother cats, Rami and Monkey. Follow her on Instagram, read more about her latest book, Borderline, and (most importantly) go hug your mother.
BY Brittany Chaffee - February 22, 2021
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Thank you for being here. For being open to enjoying life’s simple pleasures and looking inward to understand yourself, your neighbors, and your fellow humans! I’m looking forward to chatting with you.
Thank you for this, Brittany… I think I feel something similar, leaving a career where I knew what I was doing, and now studying for a doctorate where I feel like I know absolutely nothing every single day. I’ve been doing it a year and I still know nothing! But in a curious way, it drives me, I think. I like how you describe that feeling of the unknown. The flow state is wonderful to experience. But I think this non-knowing state is also natural to us. That familiar discomfort. Also I quite like the thought of being a laughable… Read more »
This comment made my day! I’m so happy you’re taking the plunge into doing something new with your career. Of course, I can attest that it’s the scariest thing but I do think being vulnerable gives us so much opportunity. And yes! The unknown opens up the gates for curiosity, thus driving us further. We just have to get past that un-energized, scary as crap part 😉 And we will! Wishing you all the good fortune in your endeavors!
Beautifully written, Brittany! I feel the same frustrations (seriously, the same! Are we related?). After this year of difficult or impossible connections and so much flailing, this is such a reassuring piece to read.
Thank you so much for reading. And we COULD be related! If not that, we’re flailing through this together. I think it’s really important for us to realize we’re all (sort of) self-imposters and to be easier on ourselves. Sending you all the good vibes that you’re doing all you can – and you’re doing GREAT.