What do you do, when you don’t know what to do?

I was struck recently reading these words from author John Holt:

“The true test of intelligence is not how much we know how to do, but how do we behave when we don’t know what to do.”

What if our capability is determined not so much by what we know, what we’ve mastered, but by what we do at those critical junctures when we don’t know what to do? How profound. And how opposite to what most of us learn growing up.

Every creative journey takes us to places of I haven’t been here before. I don’t know what comes next. I don’t know what to do.

Every relationship brings us to those moments of I don’t know how to solve this conflict. I don’t know what to say. Or perhaps, I don’t know how to take away your hurt, or mine.

Developing any body of work will bring us those moments of I don’t know how to fix this problem. I don’t know where this is meant to go from here. I don’t know how to grow into the person this is asking me to grow into.

The question that Holt prompts us to ask ourselves is, What do I do when I don’t know what to do? How robust is my toolkit for those moments? How helpful are the actions I turn to?

When I don’t know what to do, sometimes I go to learn, to read, to seek inspiration. Often, I pray for an answer, a direction, some shift – and then wait for it to come in some form. Other times, I journal or go to a coaching session, to use words to help make something buried and murky come to the surface. All of these things help.

I also sometimes do some things that aren’t so helpful, like think I am supposed to know. Or hide from the issue or from talking to people about it. Or forget I can say I don’t know. What a relief, and release, to remember.

What I wish I used more in that toolkit: the habit of trying things out, experimenting, to find my way. Reaching for help from others sooner.

When you don’t know what to do, what do you do? What is in your toolkit? And what might you like to add to it?

Any interesting journey will take us again and again to the crossroads of not knowing. To be human is to again and again and again not know. And what we do from there makes all the difference.




Photo by Jan Kahánek

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