Nonsense: The Power of Not Knowing by Jamie Holmes

Nonsense: The Power of Not Knowing by Jamie HolmesNonsense: The Power of Not Knowing by Jamie Holmes
Published by Crown on October 13, 2015
Pages: 336
Source: I received a copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley for review consideration.
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An illuminating look at the surprising upside of ambiguity—and how, properly harnessed, it can inspire learning, creativity, even empathy   Life today feels more overwhelming and chaotic than ever. Whether it’s a confounding work problem or a faltering relationship or an unclear medical diagnosis, we face constant uncertainty. And we’re continually bombarded with information, much of it contradictory.   Managing ambiguity—in our jobs, our relationships, and daily lives—is quickly becoming an essential skill. Yet most of us don’t know where to begin.   As Jamie Holmes shows in Nonsense, being confused is unpleasant, so we tend to shutter our minds as we grasp for meaning and stability, especially in stressful circumstances. We’re hard-wired to resolve contradictions quickly and extinguish anomalies. This can be useful, of course. When a tiger is chasing you, you can’t be indecisive. But as Nonsense reveals, our need for closure has its own dangers. It makes us stick to our first answer, which is not always the best, and it makes us search for meaning in the wrong places. When we latch onto fast and easy truths, we lose a vital opportunity to learn something new, solve a hard problem, or see the world from another perspective.   In other words, confusion—that uncomfortable mental place—has a hidden upside. We just need to know how to use it. This lively and original book points the way.

Over the last few years, new insights from social psychology and cognitive science have deepened our understanding of the role of ambiguity in our lives and Holmes brings this research together for the first time, showing how we can use uncertainty to our advantage. Filled with illuminating stories—from spy games and doomsday cults to Absolut Vodka’s ad campaign and the creation of Mad Libs—Nonsense promises to transform the way we conduct business, educate our children, and make decisions.   In an increasingly unpredictable, complex world, it turns out that what matters most isn’t IQ, willpower, or confidence in what we know. It’s how we deal with what we don’t understand.

In Nonsense, Jamie Holmes tackles how we make sense of the world and make decisions in an age of information overload, how ambiguity (uncertainty) is hazardous when we deny it, and how it benefits us when we’re intellectually challenged. Overall, the examples he included were fascinating and covered a variety of situations: business, law enforcement, education, health care, sports, the arts, and more.

I wasn’t quite as engaged as I expected to be with this, and the reason became clear in the last third of the book. Embracing uncertainty is a central part of what I do for a living, as well as part of my teaching philosophy with my music students and as a homeschooling parent. I’ve just never thought too deeply about it, much less identified and labeled it. I think that explains why I kept thinking, “This is just common sense!” as I read.

There isn’t much information in Nonsense that is terribly eye-opening, but it’s certainly interesting. Holmes writes in a nice, narrative style and changes things up often. I found the financial/business portions mind-numbing, but before I knew it, we’d already moved on to another topic I did enjoy. There’s something for everyone in this book.

  • I think I should probably read this…as I’m one of those people that definitely gets really nervous about the unknown. I like to know the plan! But, that’s awesome that you’re so comfortable with it through your music and homeschooling – when I worked in HR for a big company, increasing the Exec’s comfort with ambiguity was something we always talked about. Good skill to have and hard one to “teach”!

  • It wasn’t quite as focused as I expected, so that was a bummer, but boy did I love all the psych studies on the tangents he wandered off on.

  • This sounds interesting, and nonfiction book with a narrative style sounds like something I could do. I’m working to get into some more nonfiction this year, so maybe this one will go on the list.

  • This sounds fun! I read a book a few years ago about decision making and how we deal with information — that one posited that having too much information made it harder for us to make choices. But this might suggest the opposite? Or at least the hazards of not admitting when things are unclear.

  • This does sound so interesting, but I can also see how our varied lifestyles could render this “common sense” to many. I think I would probably feel the same way given my career in teaching, and PR comes with its own truck load of uncertainty. Great premise, though!

  • How we deal with what we don’t understand sounds interesting, but especially if the book has lots of case studies. It’s all those little stories amid the research that I really like!

  • Ivana Džidić

    sounds like an interesting book! So great that you already employed the right strategies in your every day life. It is easy to get lost in the sea of information these days, one must really put some thought into it.

  • Even though this book felt a bit obvious too, your review makes me want to pick it up. Working in science, I certainly realize that you sometimes have to admit you don’t know things and live with uncertainty or nuance, but in my personal life, uncertainty makes me nervous 🙂