The brain is constantly searching for similarities, differences, and relationships between what it processes.
We do not like what is unfamiliar or unknown. To compensate for this, we assert ourselves with opinions and ideas that make us seem strong and certain. Many of these opinions do not come from our own deep reflection, but are instead based on what other people think. Furthermore, once we hold these ideas, to admit they are wrong is to wound our ego and vanity. Truly creative people in all fields can temporarily suspend their ego and simply experience what they are seeing, without the need to assert a judgment, for as long as possible.
This ability to endure and even embrace mysteries and uncertainties is what Keats called negative capability.
All Masters possess this Negative Capability, and it is the source of their creative power. This quality allows them to entertain a broader range of ideas and experiment with them, which in turn makes their work richer and more inventive.
Negative Capability will be the single most important factor in your success as a creative thinker. In the sciences, you will tend to entertain ideas that fit your own preconceptions and that you want to believe in. This unconsciously colors your choices of how to verify these ideas, and is known as confirmation bias. With this type of bias, you will find the experiments and data that confirm what you have already come to believe in. The uncertainty of not knowing the answers beforehand is too much for most scientists. In the arts and letters, your thoughts will congeal around political dogma or predigested ways of looking at the world, and what you will often end up expressing is an opinion rather than a truthful observation about reality.
To put Negative Capability into practice, you must develop the habit of suspending the need to judge everything that crosses your path. You consider and even momentarily entertain viewpoints opposite to your own, seeing how they feel. You observe a person or event for a length of time, deliberately holding yourself back from forming an opinion. You seek out what is unfamiliar—for instance, reading books from unfamiliar writers in unrelated fields or from different schools of thought. You do anything to break up your normal train of thinking and your sense that you already know the truth.
In order to produce work of any sort we must create limits on what we’ll consider; we must organize our thoughts into relatively cohesive patterns, and eventually, come up with conclusions.
In the end, we must make certain judgments. Negative Capability is a tool we use in the process to open the mind up temporarily to more possibilities. Once this way of thinking leads to a creative avenue of thought, we can give our ideas a clearer shape and gently let it go, returning to this attitude whenever we feel stale or blocked.
The brain is constantly searching for similarities, differences, and relationships between what it processes. Your task is to feed this natural inclination, to create the optimal conditions for it to make new and original associations between ideas and experiences. And one of the best ways to accomplish this is by letting go of conscious control and allowing chance to enter into the process.
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“We all are learning, modifying, or destroying ideas all the time. Rapid destruction of your ideas when the time is right is one of the most valuable qualities you can acquire. You must force yourself to consider arguments on the other side.
— Charles T. Munger”
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