I don’t know.” These three words send some people into a panic. Not knowing can feel stressful. It seems like you aren’t on the right track. Or that maybe you’re never going to figure out the solution to your challenge. And in the discomfort of “not knowing”, you avoid it like the plague. When the fist answer to “What do I want here?” is “I don’t know…”, you ricochet off of the topic like a super ball. And you avoid digging into it any deeper. But that’s no way to find a solution.

Digging for Buried Treasure – Imagine that you’re a pirate, digging for buried treasure. You land on a remote island, shovel in-hand. You’re looking to find the treasure chest of your answer. But as you begin to dig, all you’re pulling up is dirt!  Now…imagine that you get all upset and stopped digging. Just because you pulled up a few shovels of dirt. That would be crazy! Of COURSE you will scoop up some dirt…This is buried treasure after all. But we often react that way in our lives. When you don’t know the answer to something, you stop digging. The digging takes effort. It’s uncomfortable. This is especially true when you’re wrestling with a big challenge. You may need to dig through more dirt of “not knowing” before you get to the gold of “knowing”. All of this to say: If you let the first few instances of “I don’t know” hold you back from seeking your answer, you’ll never find it. (At the very least, it will take a heck of a lot longer.)

The Road to Clarity Starts With Confusion – The misconception here is that “not-knowing” is bad and “knowing” is good. And if one is good and the other is bad, that would mean they’re opposites. Like this: Not-knowing on one end, and knowing on the other end. You’re in the middle, trying to avoid not-knowing and always find your knowing. But that model is flawed. Why? Because not-knowing always comes before knowing.

Celebrate Confusion – Put another way, confusion precedes clarity. Which means that confusion is actually a GOOD thing! Because it means you’re stretching your mind towards new levels of clarity. So the next time you’re find yourself saying “I don’t know what I want here…”celebrate it! It means you’re on the right path. And you have the courage to keep moving in spite of the confusion, you may find the clarity you’re looking for.

Moving Through Confusion to Clarity – When you’re looking for the treasure of your answer, and you haven’t found it yet, it’s important to continue digging. But what does “digging” actually mean in real life? You can think of it like mental exploration. This “digging” takes three main forms.

  1. Journaling
  2. Conversation
  3. Active contemplation

The key point with each of them is that you spend time curiously exploring potential solutions. 

Journaling for Clarity – Journaling is simple. Grab some paper and a pen. Ask yourself a clear question. “What do I want here?” or “What do I want in terms of _______?” Write whatever comes to mind. It might start with “I don’t know.”  Whatever it is…write it down! Maybe you have some ideas. Maybe they’re really bad ideas. It doesn’t matter. Journaling in this context is about free-writing.

Practice non-judgment – You aren’t examining every shovel of dirt to see if it has the treasure. You’re optimizing for the practice of digging. By committing to the process, you stay focused on what you can control in seeking your treasure.

Write for a focused block of time – (20-90 minutes) Avoid interruptions. Ideally, do this first thing in the morning when your mind is fresh and free from outside stimulus. If you find some treasure…amazing! And if you don’t…amazing! Celebrate the continued confusion. Even if you don’t find your clarity, you’ve won by practicing the skill of wading through the waters of confusion. It’s not easy work! Give yourself a break, and repeat this process at a later point in time.

Clarity through conversation – Getting clarity through conversation is about talking through your challenge with another person. The most powerful version of this happens through coaching conversations with a skilled coach. A milder version of it can happen in a conversation with a friend/colleague/family member. The act of vocalizing your challenge and exploring potential solutions is the equivalent of “digging.” There’s no guarantee you’ll find the treasure. But you’re unearthing new possibilities by talking it out. But what if you don’t have someone to talk to in your moment of confusion?

Try talking to yourself – Grab your phone and record a video of yourself talking it out. It might feel weird, but it’s helpful. Vocalizing your challenge and talking through potential paths forward is helpful by itself. You won’t get feedback from another person. Re-watch the video as if it were sent from someone else to gain a new perspective.

Active Contemplation for Clarity – Compared with journaling and conversation, this is a more internal experience. It’s objectively more difficult. This is “productive meditation.” The goal of productive meditation is to take a period in which you’re occupied physically but not mentally–walking, jogging, driving, showering–and focus your attention on a single well-defined professional problem…As in mindfulness meditation, you must continue to bring your attention back to the problem at hand when it wanders or stalls. As with the other methods, you want to eliminate as many external inputs as possible. This is about improving your inward-concentration skills, and turning over the dirt of your mind. Only by moving dirt will you find treasure. (And improve at the process.)

Get Your Hands Dirty, Find Your Treasure – Wrestling with a big challenge? Feeling confused? Or overwhelmed by “not-knowing” the answer to some pressing question? Amazing! That sounds like an opportunity for you to grow. And to practice the mental exercise of digging for treasure.

  1. Create uninterrupted space for yourself.
  2. Pick one of the above methods. 
  3. Start digging. Focus on the mental digging itself…not the need to have an answer. (e.g. “Darken the page” is your only goal while journaling.)
  4. Stop when you said you’d stop. 
  5. Return to it later.

Next-Level Clarity and Connection – You can take these practices to the next level by getting proactive with them Instead of reserving them as a defensive reaction to confusion…Go on offense! Make a habit of connecting inwards to find clarity on your biggest challenges, opportunities, and growth edges. I’ll be sharing more about journaling in the future. Active contemplation is yours to play with. Regardless of your chosen approach…here’s to you getting your hands dirty and unearthing some treasure!

Peace and Love, Jim

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