Guidelines for “Adult” Conversation, #8 – Curiosity, Knowing and Not Knowing on the Path of Learning

Welcome back. Previous essays in this series are available at

In essays #1, 2 and 3, I briefly alluded to the importance of “not knowing.” In essay #3, more specifically, I wrote: Not knowing is the core of ongoing learning, growth and development. As soon as we “know for sure,” we close to other possibilities. Hold your knowing lightly. Stay open. Depending upon your worldview and how you interpret the phrase, “not knowing” as a path of learning may sound like common sense – or like idiocy.

Students of Korean Zen Master Seung Sahn (1927-2004), among others, might readily embrace this language and approach, while students of conventional medicine (or engineering or climate change, etc.) might be more apt to prefer as much knowing as possible in order to do more good than harm in their respective endeavors. To be fair, most honest, well-meaning human beings prefer to have the appropriate knowledge before making choices or taking action in their personal and professional lives, where “appropriate” means relevant, adequate,* useful, kind and balanced.  Ideally, appropriate knowledge refers to both the exterior world – what we might know about practical applications of biology, chemistry and physics, for example, before performing surgery, building a bridge or proliferating fluorocarbons, and to the interior world – what we might know about ourselves – the worldview and lenses through which we experience, interpret and respond to life.

The relationship between knowing and not knowing that we’re moving toward here asks us to return to our differentiating fact and opinion, or, put differently, to look carefully at our human tendency to blend what we know as fact with our immediate interpretation of what the fact might mean in the moment and for and in the future. A common parable with which you may already be familiar makes this point:

In olden times a farmer was told by his neighbors how lucky he was because he owned a prized horse. He replied, “Maybe I’m lucky; maybe I’m not.” When the horse jumped the fence and galloped away, the neighbors told the farmer how unlucky he was. His reply: “Maybe I’m unlucky; maybe I’m not.” Several days later the horse returned, accompanied by three additional wild horses. “You’re so lucky,” the neighbors told him. “Maybe I am; maybe I’m not,” he said. One of the wild horses threw the farmer’s son, breaking his leg, and the neighbors told the farmer how unlucky this was. “Maybe so, maybe not,” came his reply, and when the army came through to conscript the oldest son in each family to go to war, they did not take the farmer’s son because of the broken leg. You know what the neighbors said and how the farmer replied.

When I shared that story in a high school in Tucson in 1995, one student said that something like that had happened to him. He explained that he broke his leg in a football game; in the hospital doctors noticed some things about the break and did tests that revealed evidence of early-stage bone marrow cancer for which he underwent treatment and went into remission. He now credits breaking his leg, which when it happened was traumatic and felt ‘unlucky’ at best, with finding out about the cancer sooner rather than later. What at first felt like a devastating blow to his football career and his dreams of playing in college, subsequently felt like a “lucky break” that may have prolonged – even saved, his life.

Simply put, we interpret and give meaning before we know what some event or moment truly means. Our ability to know what’s truly knowable about something, and to be comfortable “resting” in not knowing what is not yet ours to know allows us to remain authentically curious and open to learning. As we engage in conversation with someone with whom we disagree (or agree), the extent to which we recognize and acknowledge how much we truly know and don’t know about ourselves, the other, and the content of the conversation will strongly influence, if not completely determine each party’s openness to and opportunity for growth and learning.

Such recognition, acknowledgment and openness requires and cultivates vulnerability – not in the sense of weakness or being overly susceptible to harm, injury or loss, but rather in the sense of showing up fully and authentically, hiding nothing and trusting – even in the face of fear. How willing and able is each of us, in our respective roles as parents, children, significant others, students, friends, colleagues and workers – in the broadest sense across industries and professions, to let go, or at least monitor our initial interpretations of any moment, glance, smile, frown, gesture, laugh, phrase – anything at all, and intentionally explore and allow meaning to emerge** in increasingly broader and deeper contexts?

As Dorianne Laux wrote, “We think we know what each sound means” – emphasis on “think.”

In essay #9 we’ll explore the importance of engaging (listening, speaking and asking) in order to learn, understand and clarify, and not to teach or persuade (unless teaching or persuasion has been agreed upon by participating parties in the conversation).


*While it may be appropriate in certain circumstances to have comprehensive or exhaustive knowledge, it is very often appropriate to have adequate – sufficient or enough knowledge for what is required or needed, for a particular choice or action in a given moment. The roles of language, belief, interpretation and worldview allow different people to honestly embrace slogans like: Good is the enemy of great or Great is the enemy of good.

**To state the obvious, there are times when we don’t have the temporal luxury of allowing meaning to emerge – medical emergencies and other literal moments of life and death. That said, these are few and far between for most of us during most of the moments of our lives.

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