Nonsense: A book review by Bob Morris


Nonsense: The Power of Not Knowing
Jamie Holmes
Crown Publishers (October 2015)

“In an increasingly complex, unpredictable world…what matters most is how we deal with what we don’t know.”

I selected the comment by Jamie Holmes to serve as the subject of this review because he cites one of the greatest challenges all of us face today. For example, one of the most important information needs is knowing what we think we know but, in fact, don’t. So many times we make decisions based on assumptions or premises that are inadequate or incomplete, if not flat-out wrong. When told that he was believed to be the wisest man on earth, Socrates replied that if it were true, it was because “The only true wisdom is in knowing you know nothing.”

Holmes cites dozens of primary and secondary sources to support his “simple claim” that “what matters most isn’t IQ, will power, or confidence in what we know. It’s how we deal with what we don’t understand.” And I again presume to suggest that we cannot deal with something unless and until we recognize that we really do not understand it, although we may be certain that we do. Not everyone who says “Got it!” in fact gets it but may well think they do and there’s the problem.

In this context, I am reminded again of a Jordan Peterson comment that Holmes quotes: “The fundamental problem of life is the overwhelming complexity of being.” Peterson praises the capacity of mind to eradicate vast swathes of information, albeit accurate information that is nonetheless irrelevant to and thus useless in the given circumstances. He calls this capacity of the mind “the miracle of simplification.” (Albert Einstein once recommended that everything be made as simple as possible “but no simpler.”) I agree with Holmes: “the only way we can manage the flood of perception is by creating and automatic ally deferring to working theories of what we are going to encounter — beliefs about the world, in the broadest sense.”

These are among the several dozen passages of greatest interest and value to me, also listed to suggest the scope of Holmes’s coverage:

o Ambiguity overview (Pages 9-12)
o Arie Kruglanski (11-14, 73-75, 86-87, 88-90, and 243-244)
o Sense making (19-61)
o Dorothy Martin and alien sightings (47-56)
o Traumatic events and reappraisal (65-73)
o Urgency (65-82)
o Misreading intentions (83-110)
o Need for closure scale (86-89)
o Trisha Torrey (111–114, 117-118, and 124-129)
o Misdiagnosis (111-123)
o Medical overtesting (120-126)
o Strategy of ignorance (130-154)
o Fashion forecasting (130-134, 139-141, and 145-152)
o Ambiguity tolerance and strategy of ignorance (134-139, 143-144, and 151-152)
o Business strategies (136-139)
o Uses of uncertainty (157-178)
o Gary Pisano (159-161 and 173-175)
o Benefits of failure (159-163)
o Innovations (179-203)
o Tony McCaffrey (192-198 and 201-202)
o Bilingualism (205-223)

The challenges to which James Holmes refers throughout his lively and eloquent narrative are indeed complicated and are certain to become even more so in the months and years ahead. He provides an abundance of real-world situation framed as stories, information, insights, and counsel to help his reader to understand basic principles and options such as how sense making works, including “secrets”; why intentions are misread; when to resist momentum; how to formulate and apply a “strategy of ignorance”; various uses of uncertainty; where to find hidden answers; and what benefits and opportunities appropriate diversity offers.

For many executives now struggling to lead their companies through an increasingly more ambiguous as well as volatile and disruptive global marketplace, this is a “must read.”

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