Between the old and the new, there is a place that is a kind of nowhere-land and it is one of the most challenging places to be. It can be lonely and is full of uncertainty and tension. My work over the last two decades has offered me many unique opportunities to meet and talk with some of the most brilliant individuals I’ve encountered so far in my lifetime. They are system thinkers, system entrepreneurs, maneuvering in quite complex environments, always scanning the system landscape, minds tuned, watching for the openings that can result in real and positive change in the world.
They know how it feels to let go of the old and familiar and intentionally make the leap towards the new and innovative. What I hear them often refer to is an uncomfortable ‘space’ that is part of the journey; a ‘nowhere’ that is part of being in between. I think we all need to learn to spend more time in that nowhere space.
Most social innovators vividly recall experiencing, at some point, the unnerving sense of being somewhat lost, far from shore, compass-less. The most difficult part about feeling that you’re nowhere is that it is so fraught with uncertainty – yet this very uncertainty is a necessary, productive, rich part of the process of creating conditions for social innovation. We need to rest in ‘not knowing’ for as long as it takes a truly innovative idea to emerge. There appears to be a direct correlation between a person’s or group’s capacity to tolerate uncertainty and the capacity for creating true innovation.
We need to know that it’s not only okay to feel lost for a time in nowhere-land, but that nowhere is a kind of gift with much to teach us about our work and about ourselves. Wagoner’s beautiful poem, “Lost”, encourages wanderers to ‘stand still’ and to remember that although you may feel lost, the forest always knows where you are.
These days, I am trying to dance more deliberately towards “the middle of nowhere”; gliding, sometimes elegantly, falling from time to time. I want to dance into those spaces of uncertainty and unknowingness because that is where encouragement is needed, and that is where important, complex questions appear:
“What does it mean to think like a system?”
“How do we manage risk so that we can experiment more in our communities?
“Are we trying to build resilience or knock it down?”
Dancing, even if a bit wobbly-legged, in the middle of nowhere offers up these good questions and, ultimately, can reveal new patterns and ideas about what the answers might be. I want to dance with others in this space of letting go and living with not knowing. Just long enough to open up new thinking for innovative action. Just long enough for courage and commitment to be strengthened.
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