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Knowing You Don't Know

The Lost Hindu Temple in the Jungle MistImage by Stuck in Customs via Flickr

Knowledge is power, they say, and when we don't know, we tend to feel powerless and afraid. And yet, being able to embrace and accept a certain level of unknowing is a good thing.

Like the old Hasidic rabbi who crossed the village square every morning on his way to the temple to pray. One morning, a large Cossack soldier, who happened to be in a vile mood, accosted him, saying, "Hey, Rebby, where are you going?"

And the rabbi said, "I don't know."

This infuriated the Cossack. "What do you mean, you don't know? Every morning for 25 years you have crossed the village square and gone to the temple to pray. Don't fool with me. Who are you, telling me you don't know?"

He grabbed the old rabbi by the coat and dragged him off to jail. Just as he was about to push him into a cell, the rabbi turned to him, saying, "You see, I didn't know."

Leaders can fall into the trap of seeing their role as the one who should know it all -- and then worse yet, think they do! We are so used to instant gratification, faster computers and microwaved food. We want instant weather, stock quotes, public-opinion polls and interest rates on our Blackberries and iPhones. We find it hard to let things go unknown or unfinished for very long. We want to know immediately what's going to happen next, don't we?

But in the end, the most important things many times show themselves slowly, and in their own time.

Edward Gibbon conceived his history of the rise and fall of the Roman Empire while listening to a choir of monks at vespers. Nobel physicist Steven Weinberg was nagged by the problem of how nuclear reactions produce the heat of the sun -- until it came to him one day unbidden as he was driving around Boston in his red Camaro. The idea for the microwave oven came to Percy Spencer one day when a chocolate bar melted in his pocket as he stood in front of a magnetron, the microwave tube used to power radar.

Sometimes our greatest insights come when we don't know, and know that we don't know...but we're open to the prospect of the "knowing" showing up unexpectedly. Like Archimedes who allegedly discovered the law of gravity while taking a bath. Who would have known?

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