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Nonsense: The Power of Not Knowing


Jamie Holmes’ Nonsense: The Power of Not Knowing brings together several different cognitive theories to help understand how different individuals deal with ambiguous information. While some individuals have a high need for context, others are more comfortable when new information doesn’t neatly fit into their current understanding of the world. I found this to be such an insightful read for learning how to understand different points of view and appreciate how individuals can interpret the same event so vastly differently.

Highly readable, engrossing, and truly fascinating at its core—this book explains how important it is to be able to deal with ambiguity, and why we don’t always need to seek closure. I also found it fascinating how Holmes’ shows that successfully dealing with ambiguity and uncertainty does not require a high IQ—but requires that we learn to master the emotional challenge of figuring out what to do when we have no idea what to do. He states that he hopes to convince the reader of “a simple claim”: “In an increasingly complex, unpredictable world, what matters most isn’t IQ, willpower, or confidence in what we know. It’s how we deal with what we don’t understand.”

Embracing uncertainty, the book claims, helps creativity and invention, deepens empathy, improves your likeliness of making rational decisions, makes you less likely to fixate or clutch to “one aspect of a complex and shifting reality”, and opens you to outside influences and traveling. As the author quoted Jerome Bruner: Creativity often results “when the ambiguity wins.” Even ‘mind traveling’ by reading books can have profoundly helpful impacts, according to Mr. Holmes, as he states: “…it’s why reading fiction—which puts us in other people’s shoes—can both lower our need for closure and make us more empathetic.” (Interestingly, in novels, I prefer stories with clear closure, not stories where it appears the author simply stopped writing in order to end the story.)

One final thing I’ll mention is that I did find myself a little confused because the book has several pages of notes—but perhaps I can learn from the seemingly unfinished notes what the book as a whole aims to teach: we don’t need to constantly seek certainties and closures. My biggest lesson from this was this: “Owning our own uncertainty makes us kinder, more creative, and more alive.”

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