How Not Knowing Can Unleash Your Creative Genius

how not knowing unleases your creativity
Photo by Stephen Poff

In our Western culture, we’ve been educated out of our creativity, sponteneity and genius by being taught that, in order to make progress, we need to do more research, get more information, and learn more skills. We’ve been taught that wisdom is about adding knowledge, and our innate wisdom, creativity and responsiveness is devalued as childish, impulsive and naive, so we stop inventing solutions and we learn how to research and write articulate “clever” reports instead. We learn that not knowing is a bad thing – something that’ll earn you judgment and probably punishment too. So when we don’t know, we try hard to pretend that we do know and in so doing, we quell our natural curiosity that used to motivate us to observe, experiment and innovate. We try hard to avoid getting into situations where we’re uncertain, so we stick with what we know, and this only serves to dull our creativity, sponteneity and genius further.

How not knowing can make you smarter and more creative

Because we’ve been taught to fear anxiety and uncertainty, we’re sacrificing the natural process of our creative genius. You see, our minds are naturally compelled to find answers and solutions to the questions we have. As demonstrated by the Zagarnic Effect, when you have an unanswered question or problem in mind, your mind will commit itself to finding a solution, and your unconscious will continue to process the problem even while you’re consciously concentrating on something else.

A crucial part of this natural problem-solving process is the development of “creative tension.” Creative tension happens when there’s a gap between where you feel you are and where you want to be. That gap or dissonance creates tension, which motivates your mind to solve the problem in order to close the gap and relieve the tension. While it can feel really uncomfortable (especially if you’ve been taught to believe that not knowing is a bad thing that you’ll be punished for), the creative tension that results from not knowing and having an unsolved problem is a wonderful gift, because that’s exactly what flips your creative genius on!

Unfortunately, most of us find the anxiety intolerable, and so we do our best to get out of the unbearable anxiety of not knowing, by coming up with an answer as quickly as we can. Then we’ll try and run with the first solution or answer that comes to mind, and miss out on the genius solutions that our mind could have produced instead, had we been willing to bear the creative tension a little longer. If you can recognise that not knowing and the anxiety that comes with it is a springboard for your genius, and get more comfortable with not knowing, then you can enjoy unleashed, genius levels of creativity. So here are some tips on using creative tension to unleash your genius:

    1. Create a gap between where you are and where you want to be by articulating a goal or a problem that you want to solve. As you articulate the problem to be solved and your intention to solve it, you’ll feel the anxiety of not knowing start to rise. If you don’t feel any anxiety, then either the problem isn’t actually important to you, or you already know how to deal with the problem and you haven’t articulated a challenging enough problem.
    2. Give yourself a deadline for solving the problem and notice how that can increase the creative tension. Some people only really feel the creative tension when they’re under time pressure.
    3. Carry around a smart question that relates to the outcome you want. Because your mind will always look for an answer to the question you carry, it’s never a good idea to ask yourself questions like, “What did I do to deserve this?” Instead, a useful way to phrase your smart question is in the following format: “How can I… (insert the outcome you want).” For example, when I realized that I wanted to travel again, but I was worried about how I could continue doing the work I love while I travel, I carried the question, “How can I do the work I love while I travel the world?” At the time, when I started asking myself this question, I felt huge anxiety, because I had no idea how I could make this happen. A part of me really wanted to swap this outcome for a more “realistic” outcome – an outcome where I already knew a bit about HOW to achieve it, in order the relieve the anxiety of not knowing.
    4. Make sure that the question you ask yourself is an open question. I know there are techniques for asking “yes/ no” questions of yourself using muscle testing and pendants and such. This can be tricky because the success of those methods rests on the assumptions that 1.) you’re already aware of all your options, and that 2.) you can have either option, but not both options. So you’re limiting your options and placing a lot of constraints on yourself if you ask yourself a “yes/ no” question. Most of life is more complex than “yes” or “no” options. Alot of the time each option has some “yes” in it and some “no” in it, and you can often custom-design your own solution using the parts you love and cutting out the parts you don’t love.
    5. Resist the temptation to accept the first answer you generate. Keep asking, “And how else can I… (insert your outcome)?” Continuing to hold the creative tension will result in you generating more answers to your question – often filling in the other missing puzzle pieces you need. And the additional benefit is that by continuing to hold your question, you’ll also learn to be more comfortable with experiencing creative tension and bearing the uncertainty of not knowing for a longer period of time – a great life skill in these turbluent times!

If you can suspend for a while that part of you that’s been dulled by our eduactional and corporate systems and needs to know HOW you’ll get to your outcome, and invest your imagination and attention into getting familiar with WHAT you want instead, and tolerate the creative tension that is created when you do this, you’ll be surprised and thrilled by the answers you generate. Here’s to not knowing and uleashing your creative genius!

“A true leader is not someone who feels fully informed but someone who continuously receives insight and guidance.” – Martha Beck

Through her Bottom-line Bookclub [no longer in business], “Resource Miner,” Cath Duncan offers accelerated learning programs for professionals who want to develop the Agile Living Strategies for thriving in these turbulent times. You can follow Cath’s blog at and on Twitter she’s @cathduncan.

Leave a Comment

{ 23 comments… add one }
  • Blake Rockey September 21, 2009, 9:25 pm

    @kid:: your comments remind me of a conversation I had recently with a film director on true creativity clashing with commercial intent. Those producing a film often set goals and deadlines for those creating the film and this works in the end to undermine the creativity. This problem happens everyday but the key I've found is to have balance. Feel the pressure of deadlines and expectations and use that tension to fuel your creativity. As the post said, it helps if you have a clear distinction between where you are and where you want to be. A good way of defining this is by asking the right question. When crafting the question you're trying to solve start with “What” or “How” instead of “why” “when” or “who”, include yourself in the question and focus on acting to achieve the goal. How can I or What can I do to…
    Great post! It hits the nail right on the head.

  • Blake Rockey September 21, 2009, 5:25 pm

    @kid:: your comments remind me of a conversation I had recently with a film director on true creativity clashing with commercial intent. Those producing a film often set goals and deadlines for those creating the film and this works in the end to undermine the creativity. This problem happens everyday but the key I've found is to have balance. Feel the pressure of deadlines and expectations and use that tension to fuel your creativity. As the post said, it helps if you have a clear distinction between where you are and where you want to be. A good way of defining this is by asking the right question. When crafting the question you're trying to solve start with “What” or “How” instead of “why” “when” or “who”, include yourself in the question and focus on acting to achieve the goal. How can I or What can I do to…
    Great post! It hits the nail right on the head.

  • coldburnfury September 10, 2009, 12:38 pm

    Look at every problem and the solution of each problem from a different angle. The difficult part of this process is becoming a bit too merticulous of your ending result. However, discipline is a good trait to have when you want quality versus a rush job. I agree with this article, however, I feel that it does not go into enough depth when the author mentioned “creating the gap”. That is a serious step, which invlovled disavowing yourself and all of your current achievements and developing a hunger for perfection. If not checked, this hunger can develop into an obsession. Such behavior has its benefits, however the obsessor has deafened his/hers reasoning deduction capabilities.

  • Gilbert Ross September 3, 2009, 1:29 pm

    Hi Cath,

    I am sorry that I now realize that I should have addressed the compliment and comment to you. I was just knackered yesterday evening writing the comment with eyelids half-closed! so failed to see the guest details at the end of the article. Two thumbs up for the article. Brilliant :)

    • CathD September 4, 2009, 12:47 pm

      Hi Gilbert,

      No sweat! Glad u enjoyed it, and I like your distinction about active & passive phases in the process – that helps with the whole Tao paradox of doing without doing, and all that stuff :)


  • Gilbert Ross September 2, 2009, 3:59 pm

    Fantastic article Glen!

    I particularly like the way you explained the knowledge gap which creates the creative tension. This gap together with establishing your intentions and articulating the right questions is what I would refer to as the active or generative part of the creative process.

    The other step is the passive part where it is important to suspend judgments, clear your mind of preconceptions and as you said not rush off to the first answer. I believe this is why meditations is essential to cultivate this part of the creative cycle.

  • Anthony Mallgren August 27, 2009, 5:24 am

    Regular Steven Covey type of stuff right here. Maybe the 9th Habit of Highly Effective People.

  • Byron Kawaichi August 24, 2009, 1:42 am

    You have articulated a process I have been wrestling with for 20 years as a designer. Thank you for this clarity. Maybe it will help me not take the anxiety so seriously.

    • CathD August 26, 2009, 4:25 am

      @Byron: *big smile* Wow, so glad this was useful for you. You're right, recognising that anxiety is a powerful part of the process of creativity can help you to not get anxious about getting anxious… so you can relieve yourself of a layer of anxiety. I find that holding a question also helps me to feel curious, which is a playful feeling for me, and then that's a nice positive feeling that makes the whole experience lighter.

      Enjoy playing!

  • UFMurphy August 23, 2009, 10:40 am


    This is truly amazing stuff. I've seen this every day in just about all of my past jobs. My current employer, which I actually love working for, has an appreciation for these very topics, but it's waning due to the explosion in growth.

    I love the guideline for creating this creative tension. My question is… Do you think it applies to everyone? I am slowly forming the opinion that people are hard-wired to be great “executors” or great “creators” – but very seldom both. Creators, us, realize the value in thinking about something before acting – we're solutioning. The questions that give rise to creative tension actually do create disharmony in us. But for many, it doesn't. Some people prefer to just crank a handle, prepare the fries or create meaningless powerpoint slides without the compulsion to solve any problem at all.

    It's amazing to me how “in the weeds” we've become in America. I actually think that the mess on Wall Street had a lot to do with “executors” performing tasks and never stepping back to see the big picture. Granted, there were a few “creators” at the top who saw the big picture very clearly.

    Ironically, it seems like creativity was given a pink slip and its work was dumped on the remaining “process-driven” staff to handle.

    I cannot say I have done any secondary research, but I consider myself a student of life and observe this stuff daily. I have some great stories that would make you laugh, but likely not surprise you at all.

    If you have any other great research references, I'd love to start reading up on the academic thought behind this.

    Again, great stuff.

    • CathD August 26, 2009, 4:22 am

      Hi Jim,

      So glad you enjoyed the article :)

      mmm… are some of us better at creating while others are better at executing? Sure. Can anyone use this method to become more creative? I definitely think so. Executers might have to work a bit more on tolerating their anxiety and developing patience and creative people might have to remind themselves that the method also involves setting a deadline, but I think anyone can benefit from it. I guess it goes back to the whole nature/ nurture debate… how much is “hard-wired” and how much can we change? Research these days is showing our brains are incredibly plastic and we can change the way we're “hardwired” quite dramatically. And of course, as a coach, I hold the belief that we can learn anything and even change aspects of our “personality” if we're willing to apply ourselves to the task.

      And resources to read… I tend to lose track of my references because I pull from so many different resources, but I know this idea of “creative Tension” I definitely got from Peter Senge's book, “The 5th Discipline.” It's a great book about creating a learning (and therefore more creative) organisation. I also draw a lot from neuro-linguistic psychology, where I've learned about stuff like the Zagarnic effect (you can google and find more to read about that), and the power of questions. Tony Robins has a very good chapter about the way questions work and how to ask smart questions in his book, “Awaken the Giant Within.” I also attended a fantastic seminar with Dr Martha Beck earlier this year, called, “unleash your inner genius” (I believe she's running another in Oct, & hopefully the recording will be available to purchase afterwards. She only ever does a particular training a few times and then she's moved on to something else amazing). She referenced a book called, “The Talent Code” quite a bit. You can also google “Eureka effect” and you'll find more research related to the idea of holding/ building creative tension.

      I didn't get this exercise from a book though. I made it up, and then tried it myself and got amazing results with carrying around an open question, so I do it all the time now, and I've taught it to some of my clients and they're getting great results with it too. Like most of the stuff I teach, I check if I get results with it first.

      I'd love to hear how it goes for you, when you use it!


  • Phil Novara August 20, 2009, 6:56 pm

    Truly enjoyed this read…in other words it is basically creating a “burning desire.”

    Same principle in “Think and Grow Rich” by Napolean Hill…only simplified. I like looking at it this way though. Keep writing!

    • CathD August 26, 2009, 4:04 am

      Hi Phil,

      Part of the tension is developed from articulating the outcome you want, but my sense of “Think & Grow Rich” and other resources in that genre is that they create the tension by phrasing the outcome in the present tense, as an affirmation. What's different about this method is that you're focusing on your outcome in the form of a question. My experience of this is that it helps me to relax and not be so attached to the specific outcome, whilst I “work” on generating solutions. I find the question also gives me a playful sense of curiosity, which I don't get when I focus on just the outcome phrased as an affirmation. Might just be my personal style/ particular personality… I'd be very interested to know whether you also experience it this way when you use a question instead of an affirmation.


  • Glen Stansberry August 19, 2009, 5:13 pm

    James, you're too kind here. But thanks Cath for the article :) She's the genius behind today's work!

    • CathD August 20, 2009, 8:37 am

      Hi James,

      Thanks so much – so glad you found this post valuable :)

      “I've always been the type that does research and try's to understand as much of the problem as I can before attempting to solve it” – Agile Living Strategies are a lot about helping people to move out of this kind of thinking (which we're all taught in school/ university/ corporate life!) and to learn to be more present and observant, and to respond creatively, drawing on their innate knowledge (which is always more genius than the stuff we've “learned” through institutions). This way we can be more agile, changing our minds easily and elegantly in creative response to our changing environments, and create more of the life we want. Do stop by my sites and see what else you can use.


  • TheBaumGroup August 19, 2009, 3:45 pm

    Uncertainty is the gateway to creativity, and patience is the key.

  • kid August 19, 2009, 3:41 pm

    Interesting post (and very timely for me). I personally find it extremely difficult not to follow the first answer when I am under strong pressure . It hardly pays but I don't learn from the experience. Must create some mantra based on your ideas, maybe it'll help :-) But if you're not your own boss, it might not be that easy because it's not only the tension between the question and the answer you have to stand but also the one between you and your boss… It often seems easier to bombard them with wrong solutions until you maybe finally get to something acceptable rather that ask to give you some time to think and come with a brilliant one.

    • CathD August 20, 2009, 8:29 am

      @kid: I think everybody finds it hard not to go with the first answer, because the uncertainty of not knowing creates stress and the stress response creates urgency (and closes narrows our thinking). It's so important to relax, so you can get out of the stress response and then you'll have better quality thinking.

      Unfortunately not all bosses appreciate this stuff!