Unknow What You Know

I’ve been reading Michael Pollan’s book, How to Change Your Mind, about the history of the use of psychedelic drugs. What I find most interesting are Pollan’s descriptions of how an “experienced” mind works and what that might mean for creativity and ingenuity. While we laud experience and education specific to what we do and believe the more familiar we are with it, the more efficient and effective we’ll be, we may also get stuck doing the same thing over and over. Pollan uses terms like rote and shorthand for how our minds work when we confront a situation we know all too well and respond as we always have. While he admits to the practicality of this approach that most likely results in an expected outcome, he also writes, “The good thing is I’m seldom surprised. The bad thing is I’m seldom surprised.”

Typically, we (and by this I mean humans in general) tend to pull together experienced people when we begin a project. We comb through past projects that are similar and leverage what we can. We google to find out what others have done in the same situation, and we come up with quite satisfactory results. But what if we really want to create something fresh, original, out-of-the-box, and all those other adjectives we use to express how different we want a project to be? How do we get to a place in our minds where we don’t use shorthand or rote based on all of the vast knowledge we already have? How do we “unknow” what we know to truly start from scratch?

Well, of course, this is a conundrum. Our minds are naturally going to jump to the familiar, the safe, the known. While some of the research and people Pollan writes about suggest psychedelics can help get to that unknowing state again, I’m not recommending that. But I do believe there are practices that can enliven and enlighten our minds as we go about getting work done that just might surprise us and energize our projects, processes, and products.

Invite someone to the party who doesn’t have experience with what you’re trying to accomplish.

  • Include someone from a different business area. Have a graphic designer attend a meeting to discuss a new business process. Ask a programmer to help brainstorm instructional strategies for a facilitated workshop. Pull in an engineer to talk about a sales strategy.
  • Ask a child or teenager for their input. They may have far less experience, but they also see possibilities where we no longer do. They perceive the world differently given the ever-changing nature of technology and the amount of information available to them from a young age. What we’ve learned over time, they have grown up with seamlessly. This informs how they believe things should work, often in contrast to what we believe.
  • Remember not to immediately dismiss what may seem like a naïve suggestion from an inexperienced person. Ask yourself why the suggestion wouldn’t work, and if your only answer is, “We’d never do it that way” or “We’ve always done it this other way,” then it may be a suggestion to consider. Some of the hardest questions I’ve ever been asked have come from my daughter. When my final answer to multiple “whys” is, “It’s just the way it is,” I know she’s got me beat and there must be another way to handle whatever she’s asking me about. I’ve been stymied, but I’m also exhilarated to think differently.

Come at it from another perspective.

  • Travel can be eye-opening and mind-expanding. Seeing how others live and work, even within your own country, can shift your perspective and open up your thoughts to possibilities and opportunities you wouldn’t have considered otherwise.
  • The same can be said for looking at other industries or types of work. Think of lean; designed to improve manufacturing, it’s now implemented in office settings and hospitals. And what about agile? A process used in software development is now being used in instructional design. While it’s not a perfect fit, it’s shaking up the status quo of ADDIE in a world that moves faster, acknowledges change as a given, and operates globally and virtually.
  • Instead of writing about something, what if you drew it — or vice versa? Contemplating how to convey information in another way forces us to rethink, consolidate, rearrange, discard the extraneous, and add the missing.


  • Being quiet and still can clear the mind and open it up to possibilities. When we’re constantly connected and doing, there’s no opportunity for “what if.” Our minds are busy, busy, busy; so when we start on a new project, we rush to do just what we know and have always done, having no brain capacity to do more.

It’s human nature to apply our experience to each situation we encounter, to take the shortest and easiest known path to a safe outcome. But what if we paused for a moment before tackling the next project to consider how to “shake the snow globe,” as Pollan puts it? Can we take a different approach? Could the result be better and more interesting than what’s typical? We just might surprise ourselves, and wouldn’t that be a nice change!

3 Responses

  1. Mike Blahnik

    Great post, and a great challenge, Denise. To unknow what I know sounds kind of scary. After all, I spent a lot of time getting to know all this stuff!

    • Boris

      That’s why feldenkrais didn’t advocate unknowing anything, but instead to learn something new.

      That was you can always fall back to the tried and true if you have to.

      To unlearn what you already know is a flawed approach for the exact reason you described, it’s scary.

  2. Susan Fisher

    Denise, thanks for opening my mind — these are great suggestions that I intend to try. (And I’m happy that psychedelic drugs are not required!)

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