This interview, which appeared in the September 1983 issue of The Esalen Catalog, is a valuable statement about acknowledging our ignorance.

Donald Michael, internationally recognized for his work in long-range planning, is professor emeritus of Planning and Public Policy and professor of Psychology at the University of Michigan. He’s the author of four books, including On Learning To Plan And Planning To Learn.

Our thanks to Donald Michael and to Keith Thompson, who did the interview, for permission to reprint it.

The Esalen Catalog is published three times a year. A sample copy is available from Esalen Institute, Big Sur, California 93920. Subscriptions are $6.

—Ed.

© Copyright 1983 Esalen Institute


THOMPSON: One thing seems true for individuals and organizations, even for nations: what we assume we know with great certainty, when examined more closely, leads to larger unknowns. Individuals realize how little they know about the complex processes of their own minds, and social and political organizations discover they don’t know much about what’s really happening in the interdependent world around them. The response, often, is that we gather a lot of facts to try to cover the gap. We consolidate against our ignorance.

Your work, Don, points in a different direction — toward embracing our ignorance, working with it, moving into a “learning mode” in the face of great uncertainty. How did you come to this view?

MICHAEL: Well, in appreciating that we face enormous problems and opportunities in the future, I was also aware that we did a miserable job of longer range planning for those opportunities and difficulties. And I was curious as to why we were so irresponsible about planning our future, particularly from the standpoint of organizations — governmental, corporate, educational, and the like. What I discovered was essentially what you just said: that as a society we hadn’t thought much about possibilities and problems for the future, nor, especially, much about how we were to get from where we were to where we wanted to be. If you think about the usual kind of learning our society rewards — what our schooling rewards — it is not learning to ask questions. It’s learning to know the answers. The learning models for our society are the engineers who know the answers based on their knowledge of cause-and-effect. But since cause-and-effect knowledge couldn’t be the standard used for talking about what would happen to society, planners — both public and private — feared looking incompetent. So, rather than seeking to do long range planning which would have required acknowledging their uncertainties — which in turn would have been completely unacceptable — all they did was short range planning by extrapolation from the present. The whole process went nowhere. The most blatant example of this was in the early days of futures studies. The presumption was that the studies would tell what would happen, so that planners could act according to the engineering mode. But what the studies did, if they were good ones, was indicate, “Well it could go this way, or could go that way, or could go still this way.” So the futures studies went on the shelf.

THOMPSON: Along with the reports of various presidential commissions whose conclusions pointed in directions different from those conceived by successive occupants of the White House.

MICHAEL: Exactly. And it led me to see more clearly that the whole definition of competence for people in administrative and decision-making positions is knowing the answer, knowing the cause and its effect, and knowing what to do about it. And if you can’t act as if you know what to do you’d either better pretend you can or avoid facing the situation that requires acknowledging that you don’t know. This led me to appreciate the value of acknowledging uncertainty as a way to create new questions. It allows you to use your uncertainty as a guide to what options are available and what you want to pay attention to. You enter the experiential mode of both the true scientist and the artist, a mode of exploration and willingness to be informed by ignorance.

THOMPSON: In many schools of humanistic psychology and various meditative practices, there is built-in support for being a learner and for acknowledging ignorance, which are seen as essential to growth and development. And many so-called “primitive” cultures understand that there is energy and wisdom in darkness — that “the shadow knows.” Our society, as a whole, especially on the macro-organizational and political levels, lacks a learning/exploring context for decision-making. Presidential candidates campaign on platforms which assert what they know and what they will do, and candidates (like Jerry Brown) who imply that not-doing-at-all is often the intelligent path, are mocked by the press and political experts. Have you given any thought to how we can begin to put incentives into the system to make learning as valuable as knowing?

MICHAEL: First, it’s important to recognize that the burden on decision-makers to act as if they know, when they know that they don’t know, is a heavy one. The world is continually demonstrating to people who have responsibility for decisions and programs that things don’t go the way they expect them to. Things really are uncertain. So a big part of providing incentives is to give these people a sense of legitimacy, a story, a perspective, that says, “It’s reasonable, it’s logical, it’s sensible to acknowledge your ignorance. If you don’t, you are going to get into trouble, because denying it leads to enormous personal anxiety and organizational unproductiveness. And furthermore there are other people like you who are in this same situation. What you need to do is build a support group wherein you can share this alternate way of engaging the world and learn from each other.”

Just as in the self-exploration practices for which Esalen is known, planners are searching too. The most wonderful thing I experience when I work with them is the enormous relief they feel when they find out they are not alone, that there are other people with whom to share their questioning.

So, if you can begin, as I try to do in my workshops, to put them in touch with one another, you can help them legitimize the logic of acknowledging uncertainty. They come to see that the conventional way of living in organizations insulates people from one another, separates them, in effect decentralizing them from one another, so that they are unable to see that there are others sharing their situation, and unable to learn to use their specific uncertainties.

THOMPSON: Recently, as it has become apparent that the old hierarchical organizational models don’t account very well for the world as we know it, the notion of networking has become very appealing — decentralized, autonomous movements to bridge the gap between local governance processes and the old hierarchical ones. What do you see as the strengths and weaknesses of networks?

MICHAEL: I think the strengths of networking are two-fold. First, it is a way of sharing large amounts of information, the amount depending on the technology to some extent — telephone, photocopies, meetings, computers, or what have you. The point is that once you have a group of people recruited for a particular preoccupation, the self-consciousness of the network — its own sense of what it is for — rewards sharing a lot of information. More importantly, it is the expectation that the networkers have about networking that encourages sharing information. It is part of their mythology.

Secondly, networking is a way of recruiting people who are interested in accomplishing something that depends on the sharing of information and a connectivity. It focuses and coalesces a set of people, a set of preoccupations, and a certain kind of information, in order to push on the rest of society in some way. Yet networks are also diffuse, in that people frequently are not face to face and the linkages are not necessarily tight, and people can flow in and out. The strength of networks is that they are both diffuse, or decentralized, and coherent, or centralized.

THOMPSON: And their weaknesses?

MICHAEL: Well, you could say that a strength and a weakness of the recruiting attractiveness of networks is its tendency to attract like-minded people and to wash out other views. And because networks are often low on the structure side, there is no way to ensure attention to ideas that are unattractive. You can throw them into the pot; maybe they will get attended to, and maybe they won’t. This brings up the big question of the shadow, or the darker side of our motivations. One of the rewards of the network is that it seems as if we are all in it to serve a higher social purpose, yet each networker also has his or her own self-serving psychological needs and motivations. Insuring regulation of these contending purposes, insuring accountability, is one of the main reasons there are structures and hierarchies in organizations. I would say lack of accountability is one of the main limitations of networking.

THOMPSON: And as for your mention of sharing information, perhaps the greater availability of information is not an unquestionable good. How is one to evaluate it? How does one hold onto the stance of not knowing in the midst of so much seductive new information? It can give us a sense of confidence and justification for our actions which may not be merited by the situation as a whole.

MICHAEL: I agree with you on all these points. Having more information alone doesn’t make the information correct, or even valuable. I would simply say that networking has not revealed itself to be a process that automatically guarantees a better society. It is itself another mode of contention and competition as much as it is a collaboration. Think of all the pro and anti networks, locally and nationally, about abortion, busing, gun control, gay rights, the nuclear freeze, etc. A major weakness at present is that there has been very little theoretical and conceptual work on such questions as: are networks based on anything more than a belief in the old “invisible hand” operating in a new mode, with a new attitude — a belief somehow that if we each and all go our networking ways, this will add up to the common good. There is nothing I know of that suggests on the face of it that it will add up any more so than competition and collaboration among nations or in the marketplace has done. It may be simply another market activity.

THOMPSON: And even when this “invisible hand” is spoken of in terms of ecological networks and whole-earth networks, it’s difficult to avoid the impression that beneath the holistic metaphors often lurk the same old Newtonian mechanistic assumptions. When these kinds of networks claim for their actions and beliefs a vague ecological legitimacy in the hushed tones of near-theological sanction, we’re exactly back where we started — to the fear of acknowledging our ignorance and uncertainty about our actions in a systemic world. The unfortunate result is that networking, as a mode and as a style, becomes more mystified, not less, and possibly even trivialized.

MICHAEL: That’s well put. Moreover, there is often a misunderstanding of the meaning of “ecological.” Take a tropical rain forest, for example. It looks like everything fits together nicely, that there is a mutuality, a convergence of all the parts, and they fit beautifully. But they fit, in part, by virtue of destroying each other. There is the interdependence of life and death, of adjustment and readjustment. If you go down into an ecology it is an ongoing transformation in which some win and some lose. Within an ecology it is not a win-win situation.

THOMPSON: The winners eat the losers.

MICHAEL: Yes. And if we say we are part of an ecology, or ecologies within ecologies, it means that somehow we must work out how we are going to deal with some being winners and some being losers. If we wish to speak of “fittingness” in an ecological sense, we must be willing to accept the deeply ingrained sense of true mutuality, of vulnerability, of the coming and going, rising and falling, decaying and growing, that make up life on this planet. It is precisely this kind of world view that is yet to be worked out to deal with six billion people, limited resources, finite plans and contending value systems, endless groups here and abroad, each going their own way, “networking,” claiming their rights and their vision of society. If there is one law at this level of human and material exchange, it is that there are, finally, no free lunches. We have hardly begun to work out the social and personal implications of this.

THOMPSON: In your seminar description, you speak of several “new competences” which are allied with taking the learner’s stance, or as you put it, with developing “applied vulnerability.” Can you say something about these skills?

MICHAEL: Well, first, as I have already mentioned, there is the need to acknowledge to oneself and share with others extremely high levels of uncertainty. By uncertainty I don’t mean probability; I mean the uncertainty that accompanies knowing that you don’t know. A second characteristic of the new competence is what I call error embracing. Neither persons nor organizations can learn if they aren’t able to embrace the unavoidable errors that accompany planning. Error is not synonymous with failure, but it is closely allied with learning, and the only way to learn is to reach out to discover our errors and learn from them.

A third requirement is to be future responsive. Making the future always part of the present informs us about the ethical and operational validity of our present actions. The true value of futures studies is that they can teach us about our assumptions and our ways of acting in the present. And future responsiveness can provide us with visions strong enough to engage ourselves with commitment and passion toward what we might become — or seek to avoid becoming. Then there is what I simply call interpersonal competence. Overall, our incompetence at listening, supporting, coping with value conflicts, nurturing, role playing, and empowering contributes monumentally to the appallingly low efficiency and low effectiveness of task groups, staff meetings, committees, and our individual relationships with our fellows. Some of the better interpersonally focused group work at Esalen over the years points in the direction of this skill. The challenge is to continue to apply these insights to organizational and social contexts where large scale change is essential.

THOMPSON: I know this is a simplistic question, but given your work in futures planning, I can’t resist. Are you optimistic about the future?

MICHAEL: I prefer to say I’m hopeful rather than optimistic. Optimistic means you believe the odds are on your side; hopeful means it’s worth trying regardless of the odds. The next two decades promise to be a period of profound turbulence, a time of potential excitement and potential terror. One response to the challenge would be to withdraw from the costs of an open society, to retreat to the security that comes with law and order under authority and an identity based on separating “us” from “them.”

But the potential is also there for learning to live more compassionately, to become better learners — indeed, to become a learning society. To do so we need all the clarity we can muster regarding our ignorance and finiteness, our vulnerability, and all the support we can obtain in order to face the often unsettling implications of what our clarity reveals to us.

It is, really, a matter of becoming more compassionate. For it is compassionate persons who, by virtue of accepting the implications of their own vulnerability, can provide others as well as themselves with support as we choose the path of learners.