The Value of Confusion

The Value of ConfusionAre you confused about how to proceed with your hottest new idea or project? If so, take heart! Confusion is not always a bad thing. In fact, it’s often a necessary part of the creative process.

The weirdness enters when you start judging yourself for being confused. Then, instead of benefiting from this normal stage of “not knowing” you end up in endless rounds of self-talk, procrastination, and worry.

What IS confusion, really?

Technically speaking, it’s a state of mind in which the elements you are dealing with appear to be indiscriminately mixed, out of whack, or unable to be interpreted to your satisfaction. Everyone from Einstein to Mickey Mouse has had this experience. It comes with the territory of trying to innovate. Most of us, unfortunately, have a hard time acknowledging it.

“Not knowing” has become a euphemism for “ignorance”. And so begins our curious routine of appearing to know and giving bogus answers — to ourselves and others — in a pitiful attempt to mask our confusion and maintain a sense of control, brilliance, and selfhood. Our discomfort with not knowing prevents us from mining the value of this potentially fertile time of dislocation.

Picasso understood. “The act of creation,” he said, “is first of all an act of destruction.” Great breakthroughs often emerge after times of dissolution, chaos, and confusion. Wasn’t the universe itself created out of chaos?

llya Prigogine, a leading brain researcher, describes this phenomenon as the “Theory of Dissipative Structures”. Simply put, when things fall apart, they eventually reorganize themselves on a higher level (if they don’t first become extinct).

And while this transition stage certainly looks and feels like confusion, what’s really happening is that the old structures are giving way to the new. Lao Tzu, one of China’s most revered sages, knew all about this:

“I am a fool, oh yes, I am confused. Other men are clear and bright. But I alone am dim and weak. Other men are sharp and clever, But I alone am dull and stupid. Oh, I drift like the waves of the sea, Without direction, like the restless wind.”

Somehow, he knew that things needed to be a little mixed up for there to be space for something new to enter his life. He knew that sometimes it was wisest just to let life unfold — and that any knee-jerk attempt to clear up what he perceived to be confusion would only leave him with his old habits, patterns, and routines.

There is no need to fight confusion. Let it be. It’s a stage we must pass through on the road to creation. Fighting confusion only makes it worse — like trying to clean a dirty pond by poking at it with a stick.

And, besides, even while our conscious mind is telling us we’re confused, our subconscious mind is processing a mile a minute to come up with some amazing solutions. In the shower. While we’re exercising. Even in our dreams.

Look at it this way…

First, we refuse (to have our status quo threatened). Then, we get confused (trying to sort out all the new input). Then, we try to diffuse the process (by regressing or denying.) Eventually, we get infused (inundated by new insights). And, finally, we get fused (connecting with previously unrelated elements to form a new and unified whole).

Your next step?

Allow confusion to be what it is — the catalyst for new and more elegant outcomes. And if you really can’t stand the confusion, here are seven simple things you can do to go beyond it:

1. Take a break from the problem at hand
2. Identify what’s confusing you. Name it.
3. Talk about your confusion with friends
4. Seek out missing information
5. Redefine your problem, starting with the words “How can I?”
6. Pay attention to your dreams and other clues bubbling up from your subconscious
7. Maintain a longer term perspective (“this too shall pass”)

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Mitch DitkoffMitch Ditkoff is the Co-Founder and President of Idea Champions and the author of “Awake at the Wheel”, as well as the very popular Heart of Innovation blog.

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4 Responses to The Value of Confusion

  1. I always appreciate when an artist is referenced to support the process of innovation. Artists are so often the canaries in the coal mine, that give us advance warning of the phase shift that is coming. The second time I’ve used this quote by Steve Jobs today but it is fitting:

    “I actually think there’s very little distinction between an artist and a scientist … to me, they’re people who pursue different paths headed to the same goal, which is to express what they perceive to be the truth around them so that others can benefit”

    Trying to perceive ‘truth’ is exhausting, and by its nature, confusing. Couldn’t agree more that we need to embrace that confusion until things start to coalesce.

  2. Wendy Schultz says:

    Hi. Interesting post. However, Ilya Prigogine was a chemist, not a brain researcher.

  3. Wonderful ideas!!!

    We are usually misled by our minds when we try to control and limit everything we do. Only when we feel comfortable with a certain level of ambiguity and “loss” of control we have the chance to achieve unpredictable results and many times just by following our intuition is the best way to success.

    I also believe that we can be led by God. In my life, many times He was the One who inspired me to think of an idea or to follow a certain path which eventually took me to a better place or situation.

    The earlier we learn that mental confusion is natural, the faster we will benefit from it!

  4. Pingback: NCN Articles of Interest 2/17/2012 « National Creativity Network

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