Embracing the unknown in a world of definitives and data can actually be a catalyst for creative breakthrough
When I get lost while driving in the Hudson Valley — which is often — I usually welcome seeing a new place. When one of my two young daughters asks me a thought-stopping question (“Papa, are we indigenous people anywhere on the planet?” “Papa, do our eyes really see nature as it is?”), I prefer to say, “I don’t know. Let’s think about that.”
The truth is, I’m comfortable with occasionally getting lost — on the road, in my mind, and in my life.
To say so can seem like a radical stance these days. After all, we have created a world that distracts us from confusion’s discomfort. Have a question? Ask Siri. Got lost on the road? Ask Google Maps. Feeling a little lost about who you are at this moment or feeling as if everything you’ve held to be true has been disrupted? Ask, um, I don’t know. Let’s think about that.
I used to think that this comfort with confusion was a character flaw. Why can’t I just get with the world’s program and be 100% confident that I know what’s what about life and about my identity? Why can’t I just provide ready-made answers to the people and organizations I work with?
But I have a different outlook now. My work with innovators and change-makers of different stripes has helped me normalize instead of pathologize this comfort with confusion. For over 20 years, I have worked with people who go through long stages of confusion. The melee in their businesses and endeavors inevitably overlaps with uncertainty about their identities. Despite profound discomfort, they still hunger for a way to pass through unknown territory to a greater possibility “on the other side.”
When I compared their experiences with my studies in the psychology of creativity and of certain wisdom traditions, I sought ways to help them (and myself) navigate if not celebrate this stage of becoming. “Could a certain kind of confusion,” I’ve long wondered, “be an invitation for creative breakthrough or even spiritual transformation?” For this question, at least, I now can respond with a confident “Yes.”
But such breakthroughs often require a detour into the deep woods of wonder.
To be in wonder with confusion could be our guide to survive if not thrive in our uncertain times.
Wonder is a heightened state of awareness brought on by something that surprises us. That surprise either delights us, disorients us, or both. When something threatens our sense of what is real and true, our default response is to fight or flee from reality. Since 2020, for instance, many of us have experienced grave loss. We’ve lost loved ones, jobs, businesses, beliefs, and a load of things we once took for granted. It’s natural for us to cling to the comfort of the known or some notion of normal, but no breakthrough or transformation that I’m aware of arose from such clinging.
Wonder, instead, pauses that fight-or-flight reactivity and brings us into an instant state of creative mindfulness. The science of wonder increasingly corroborates this unique feature. For just a few fleeting moments, these experiences of wonder dissolve our default biased ways of thinking and perceiving so we can see again what is real and true, beautiful and possible — about ourselves, our lives, other people, and the world around us.
Of wonder’s many facets, bewilderment is what I call the disorienting facet of wonder. It is a state of utter disorientation or confusion that, if navigated well, can lead to transformation.
When in bewilderment, you can feel both exhilarated by the new world you might venture into while also confused, if not lost in the present.
Isn’t it paradoxical that one way to find deep fulfillment often requires getting temporarily lost?
Perhaps more than any other facet of wonder, bewilderment can unhinge your comfortable sense of reality. (Yikes.) So why would you deliberately track this facet?
Bewilderment holds beautiful truths. It challenges the self-defined roles we play (“I am a teacher.” “I am an accountant.” “I am a Buddhist.” “I am an environmental activist.” “I am a CEO.”) and “de-centers” the self. The cognitive neuroscientist Kelly Bulkeley noted that when we feel wonder, our “ordinary sense of personal identity is dramatically altered, leading to new knowledge and understanding that ultimately recenters the self.” Wonder, benign as it may seem, sometimes drops our ego’s protective guard, and our sense of self can be left vulnerable for reinvention as rigid roles dissolve or overlap. We become aware again of the mystery of who we are and could become, as if we were a child again.
Several years ago, when our second daughter was born, I did battle with my selves. The wandering poet self who created new ideas and things seemed at odds with the self who built a business and provided security as a husband and father. Eventually, and not easily, those roles meshed into something like a business artist and a wondering papa where my selves could mesh instead of be in battle.
So much is possible.
Think of that well-known character Dorothy in the film version of The Wizard of Oz. A tornado disrupts her black-and-white Kansas reality and lands her in a bewildering technicolor realm. She’s not sure where she is or even who she is. Her eyes are wide in wonder, ready for discovery.
We all have tornado moments. Like Dorothy, we enter unknown land within our own souls —even if it shows up as something as seemingly ordinary as a job transition or relationship change. If we pay attention, we’re experiencing wonder.
Imagine your own tornado life moment. What profoundly surprising situations seemingly beyond your control have spun you for a loop? How did you respond? Did you think you were to blame? Were you able to spin initial fear into fascination? How were you able to get your footing and move forward with your life goals, perhaps with a new perspective and renewed courage? Now, consider this: When you venture toward living this one life with more creativity and artful resilience, you likely will induce your own tornado moments. Yes, you read that correctly.
As you stretch into terra incognita, you may, like an extended rubber band, want to contract to a familiar place. If you start pursuing a dream or desire, you can feel conflicted between competing desires to stay safe or explore what’s new. That’s an understandable reaction. It can be helpful, though, to stop in your tracks and feel what you’re feeling. Really, feeling the confusion is an essential step to not bypass this experience. How does your moment of bewilderment feel in your body? Along your skin? What feelings come up for you? Are you nervous about letting go of anything? Do you feel as if a part of you is dying?
This question is important: In your personal tornado moment, what would you compare these feelings to — being adrift on the ocean or lost in wild woods? Are you curious about the unknown possibilities of what could be birthed and created? Acknowledge the tension. Doing so lets more of you accept this state as an opportunity for growth and discovery. Feel it. Don’t flee it.
“Sell cleverness and buy bewilderment,” the Sufi poet Rumi writes. What an invitation! These days, after all, bewilderment can come freely if you’re open to it.
So, I invite you to celebrate this degree of confusion. When you do so, you taste the freedom in not trying to control all outcomes and in not having the answers for everything before you venture forward.
We celebrate bewilderment because you’re being honest and you’ve ventured somewhere in your mind, creativity, or life that is new, exciting, and transformative. Doing so admittedly can be hard. The dominant work culture in the United States has long valued the expert or manager with all the answers, but consider this: in this ever-changing climate, the person who can entertain ambiguities and whose mind is more flexible will have many advantages over the person who has nothing, but a brain filled with big data.
Surprises after all are learning opportunities. Our brains process novel information and sensory input, and then file away memories in the same region. So, we actually pay more attention to and remember what surprises us. Some studies are suggesting that when our expectations of core knowledge are defied, we learn better and explore more.
Being in bewilderment is an opportunity to hold the space between seeming oppositions.
Who I am now versus who I want to be. My current job versus my creativity. My for-pay work versus my for-passion work. My life as a parent versus my life as an artist. An idea of individuality versus an idea of community. We are wired in binary left-right thinking, but wonder trips our wiring and opens possibilities in the space between.
You can think of your wonder mind as the safe and brave container for your breakthrough. It’s the incubator for creative bewilderment. Befriend your wonder mind in this pause. When you pause long enough to get curious and more creative than reactive, you suspend the stress response, and your panicky amygdala calms down while your much more relaxed hippocampus lights up. This part of the brain detects novel information and sensory input. It’s involved in decision-making, learning, and long-term memory. The hippocampus is also a key area where your adult brain can generate new neurons, which science has only recently confirmed.
The fulfilled innovators I’ve worked with and studied have taught me how to foster a more creative mindset by expecting surprises, and preparing for them. We must be open and willing to leave our maps behind and accept our confusion if we want to become wiser. A creative mindset of fruitful bewilderment sets us up to do that much better than a distressed or panicked mindset.
I call this creative approach “fertile confusion” because we can use confusion to see ourselves anew and to redefine aspects of our lives or who we are through creative experiments. Fertile confusion is a state in which you refrain from seeking easy solutions or revert to old patterns long enough to transform your worldview, yourself, or your approach to a complex endeavor.
When you fertilize confusion, you can till the soil of your soul.
Consider Kerra Bolton. Kerra had built a successful career as a journalist, political pundit, and media communications specialist. As the media communications director for a prominent political figure, she was in North Carolina’s political inner circle and played a part in President Obama’s momentous win of that state in 2008. By 2016, she left North Carolina and those roles for Mexico. Her mother died just before she left, and the country’s divisive political climate shook Kerra’s sense of safety.
As a Black woman, she wanted a new start. She wanted to shed the identity tied to politics and media communications. “Artist” is what kept beckoning her toward a future horizon, but she had little idea how that would happen. During her phase of bewilderment, Bolton stayed open to possibility.
After a quick stint in making masks as an artist, she started publishing bold opinion pieces, including for CNN.com — which brought her notoriety and the attention of Ted Watchtel, founder of the International Institute of Restorative Practices (IIRP). The IIRP defines restorative practices as “an emerging social science that studies how to strengthen relationships between individuals as well as social connections within communities.” Watchtel hired Bolton as a journalist to travel with filmmaker Cassidy Friedman to document IIRP’s effects in the city of Detroit where restorative practices had helped rebuild relationships between the police force and communities of color.
While in Detroit, Bolton was personally moved by the encounters, and the filmmaker started to turn the lens on Bolton. She became not only a journalist but an “actor” in the unfolding narrative. That shift in lens awakened Kerra’s creativity in an even brighter light that meshed with her strong drive for justice and abiding curiosity in social issues. Fast-forward two years later, and Bolton helped Wachtel produce the award-winning docuseries Detroit Rising: How the Motor City Becomes a Restorative City — a project that Bolton says “led to discovering my voice as a filmmaker.” Now she is working on Return of the Black Madonna, which she notes “follows my experiences learning to swim, dive and map sunken slave ships with Black marine archeologists” — with Bolton as the protagonist.
In some ways, Bolton held the space between her roles as journalist and communications specialist and artist. The once-unknown space between has become an identity of her own making that weaves parts of her new role as documentary filmmaker and actress. Located on a beach in Mexico, she now runs her own film crew, some of whom have worked with Spike Lee. Through navigating her bewilderment, she has evolved in her unique way.
That’s the wonder of bewilderment.
Are you ready to accept your invitation?
Portions of this essay have been adapted from or excerpted from Jeffrey Davis’s book TRACKING WONDER: Reclaiming a Life of Meaning and Possibility in a World Obsessed with Productivity © 2021 Jeffrey Davis. Reprinted with permission of the author and the publisher, Sounds True, Inc.
You may also enjoy reading Poetry, Wonder and the Creative Mind, by Jeffrey Davis