And The Wisdom Of Maybe

Doubt is the act of challenging our beliefs. Katherine Schulz

One of my favorite authors, Katherine Schulz, in her 2010 book Being Wrong, reports that most children grow up living in a black and white, yes and no world until about age five, when they learn the word maybe. She says this is the beginning of our ability to acknowledge, quantify and talk about uncertainty; and it marks a major step toward learning. Since then, adults have been creative and resourceful in expressing the concept of maybe: perhaps, probably, hypothetically, doubtful, debatable, sometimes, occasionally, conceivably. Of course I like uncertainty.

My writing has probably always been about acknowledging the reality of uncertainty and the powerful role of our beliefs. Therefore, if doubt is the act of challenging our beliefs, I consider this a major benefit. But doubt, maybe and uncertainty have other benefits. They…

  • Prevent the tyranny of certainty.
  • Lead to questions and inquiry.
  • Keep the mind open.
  • Promote vigilance, persistence and skepticism.
  • Are an essential part of being wise.
  • Facilitate learning.

Doubt is not a four-letter word but it often is thought of with contempt. In today’s complex and changing world, what we know for sure is decreasing and what we don’t know is increasing. Therefore the popular saying: “The more you know the more you realize you don’t know”. Today, no matter how old you are, having only yes and no answers maybe isn’t good strategy. Perhaps we need to employ the concept of maybe, with all its synonyms, more often in our deliberations.

My suggestion for such a strategy is learned skepticism. Skepticism by definition is a doubting or questioning attitude or state of mind. Learning such an attitude or state of mind will require practice because people apparently aren’t natural doubters. Humans seem to have a built-in credulity — a combination of suggestibility in the face of whatever is presented strongly, and a willingness to believe whatever is personally congenial.

The reason to have a skeptical, questioning, doubting attitude is that it has consequences. It makes you more adaptable, flexible, resilient, creative and changeable. You became receptive to unlearning and learning. These are personal qualities that lead to survival behaviors needed in toady’s complex world of rapid change.

We live in a complex world; we often don’t know what’s going on; and we won’t

be able to understand its complexity unless we spend more time not knowing.

Margaret Wheatley

The only true wisdom is in knowing you know nothing. Socrates


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  1. John Krumboltz says:

    HB– I have no doubt that you are correct. John

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