Negative Capability

Several things dovetailed in my mind, & at once it struck me, what quality went to form a Man of Achievement especially in Literature & which Shakespeare possessed so enormously — I mean Negative Capability, that is when man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason

Selected Letters of John Keats

Tucked effortlessly into a letter that John Keats wrote to his brother is 1817 is the phrase, Negative Capability, and it has intrigued people across disciplines ever since. For me, too, it sat in a list of Kindle highlights and quotes for blog post ideas and seemed to jump off the screen whenever I would cross its path. The conjunction of those two words created unease and a fascination in me, and I want to briefly explore what Negative Capability could mean in today’s world, what we could learn from it, and how to apply that as product managers.

Portrait of John Keats by William Hilton, after Joseph Severn, oil on canvas, (circa 1822)

To have Negative Capability is to almost welcome uncertainty, mystery, and the unknown. At least, if not to welcome it, then to still greet it at the door and not be afraid of its presence. That to be face-to-face with what you do not know and to have the capacity to just let that be the case, is a human capability all of its own. The phrase at the end of the quote, “without any irritable reaching after fact & reason”, profoundly hits home in our times. The wealth of information at our fingertips, and the perpetual drive of technology and science, creates a pattern of almost religious belief that there is nothing to which we cannot know the answer, if not immediately, then very soon. So, instead, to sit comfortability with uncertainty, and not be anxiously Googling for resolution, is an interesting counter-point to how most of us live and think.

For a product manager, the point is even more destabilizing. We run towards mysteries as problems to solve, but we do not sit with the problem comfortably or patiently. Instead, we conduct research and establish procedures, tactics, and teams, all dedicated to conquering that problem. But to pause before all of that starts. To consider the moment when the customer problem first landed on your desk and to take some precious time to let the issue just be, is, perhaps, a moment we should cherish a little longer.

To bring forth creative and innovative approaches requires space between you and the act of creating a solution. Within that space, there is room to think. Not analytical and structured thinking, because you don’t yet have the raw materials of research with which to do that, but, instead, elastic and messy thinking. As I explored before you can understand the conditions for promoting that type of thinking, but you can’t determine when the inspiration will come. We also know that breaking from well-worn patterns is hard. It’s harder than thinking of something new. So there is a significant period when the problem must go unsolved. It must join you in your work, and not irritate and confound you into reaching for the nearest available answer. Instead, we should hone our capability to sit with the mystery. Let it be unsolved for a time, without judgment. The perspective gained through the comfort of not grasping ever more frenetically for the answer may well deliver a solution that would have forever been out of reach.

Mistakes, errors, false starts—accept them all. The basis of creativity. My reference point (as a playwright, not a scientist) was Keats’s notion of negative capability (from his letters). Being able to exist with lucidity and calm amid uncertainty, mystery, and doubt, without “irritable [and always premature] reaching after fact and reason.

Brockman, John. This Will Make You Smarter: 150 New Scientific Concepts to Improve Your Thinking

The insecurity of carrying around an unsolved problem will drive sub-conscious back-channeling in your mind that may provide fruit later. This feeling of insecurity is then a marker. It’s a clue that you are in a phase of the process that you will never get back. The solution is out there (I know Mulder, the truth is also), and no doubt there are multiple of them from which you will have to choose. But, without the research completed, you are at the moment in the product lifecycle where your intuition, experience, and individuality can run free.

To build Negative Capability is to see opportunity in not knowing, and by doing that, perhaps you will arrive at unique solutions later.

Inspired by This Will Make You Smarter: 150 New Scientific Concepts to Improve Your Thinking by John Brockman.

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