The wisdom of not knowing

What’s the best answer to give to a competitive challenge?

Here’s an example. When I was 20 I was told in brashly confident terms by a student colleague that he would beat me at badminton. It was an invitation. I was quite good at badminton, I could beat local opposition but in the wider world I had no idea how I would compare. How should I respond? Simply rolling over and agreeing to the defeat seemed like an affront to my self-respect. Refusing the challenge felt like weakening and leaving it open to an interpretation of cowardice. I chose to respond firmly and issue the threat right back. It was bluster, but it seemed in keeping with the behaviour of a winner.

I ended up losing the match.

Society gives confused messaged about the script to adhere to in these sort of exchanges. Judging by the archetypal Hollywood male role, the prevailing advice appears to be boldness in all things. Talk strongly first and come up with the goods later. Never weaken or submit to failure, even as a possibility. In a goal-seeking or success-obsessed culture, we have grown used to hearing the idea that wishing for something hard enough can lead to its attainment. And so our words ought to reflect that wish. But I could just as easily conform to the mode of typically British self-deprecation and shy away from the challenge with an understatement, a flinch or a little irony. Isn’t it more polite – and in keeping with our inner doubts, maybe – to remain unassuming?

Amidst this confusion, how does a true winner actually respond?

‘Maybe’. That’s the best response to the challenge.

– “I’m gonna beat you”.
– “Maybe”.

With this one word what is demonstrated is comfort with the insecurity of not knowing. The outcome of the encounter is always uncertain, to some degree, so ‘maybe’ is at least probabilistically sound. The challenge is only on because the outcome is not yet known.

‘Maybe’ is the honest response from someone who knows his or her craft. Pre-competition anxiety feeds upon uncertainty. There are a great many uncertainties before a contest and it is the mark of a good practitioner to recognise this. It is part of the game. The uncertainties are the tools with which a match is fashioned, they are part of the repertoire of any successful performer.

To deny flatly the uncertainty of the outcome is to act out of fear. Saying that I will lose or you will win is an attempt to get rid of the haunting presence of uncertainty. This is not the mark of an accomplished competitor.

Those who say they ‘don’t know how to lose’, or that they ‘don’t know the meaning of the word defeat’ are actually revealing a handicap. They are saying they will not play with the possibilities that arise. They make no art spontaneously out of the changing moments. They see certainty where none exists and are, to that extent, deluded.

The trash talk spouted by professional boxers is a very public case of such hubris. I believe this is the unhappy result of their promoters’ desire to generate bad-blood voyeurism in the audience. I rather suspect that the better fighters dislike this part of their contract. A position supported by the genuine camaraderie and honesty that is often displayed in the heat of the moment after the bout, when blood is pumping, emotions are real and the promoters for a moment no longer matter.

One last thing: do not look for security in this answer. To say ‘maybe’ automatically the next time you are challenged would be to miss the point. That would be seeking refuge in certainty in order to block out anxiety. Instead, reflect on what it means for the outcome to be uncertain. When you are set with that, then you will be ready.

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