How do you know when you know?

Last week I attended a celebration of ‘not knowing’.  A social experiment disguised as a conference; Inexpert 2018.  It was glorious.

Fourteen or so speakers, briefed to deliver something they were passionate about yet know little about.  ‘Inexpertitude’ was born.  I like to think it sums up the attitude of it being ok not to know but being willing to explore it anyway.

The best thing I have ‘experienced’ this year so felt wrong not to put pen to paper of fingers to keyboard.  Although something often holds me back from writing.  I have no issue getting words onto a page but don’t feel I’m very good at landing a point – the fear kicks in if I don’t think I’m making sense or have something of value to say, accompanied by the fixed mindset that I ‘should’ be better at it and it ‘should’ come more easily.

Perhaps that’s why I enjoyed Inexpert 2018 so much, that pressure was lifted.  Our audacious MC, Steve (@stevexoh) shared a simple model: Let Go, Notice More and Use Everything.  Also gave us a reality check that the sessions might leave us with more questions than answers, we may feel frustrated if there didn’t seem to be a point – but to go with it and pay attention to our experience (thoughts, beliefs, physical and emotional reactions).

What I like to call the mystical triangle model, courtesy of Rob Poynton

With inexpertitude spirit, here’s my experience of the afternoon.

SPOILER ALERT!!!  On reading, you may not find a point.  There’s unlikely to be a neatly summarised conclusion, I won’t know until I get there.

Steve summed up Inexpert 2018 with, “Whatever your experience of today has been… that’s been your experience”. And so be it with my musings. You might want to grab a cuppa.  It’s a linguine (auto correct from ‘long’un’).

First brave gladiator to take to the Inexpert arena was Kay (@kayscorah) with some performance art.  Kay shared she was the writer, director, actor, head of props, front of house etc.  I loved the way she said “I’m the writer… but I’m not really a writer, I just happen to write things down sometimes”.  What struck me immediately was how the labels we put on ourselves have the potential to hold us back – they come with beliefs of what it means to live up to, or fulfil them.  She shared that pre age three, she was an expert child, until she was put in a room with an adult ‘Expert’.

Setting the scene… Kay requested James’ help in the role of ‘Expert’.  James, positioned far house right, held a massive STOP sign with EXPERT in big bold letters.  Kay approached James from house left, walking slowly reciting the latest gem she had learnt, getting progressively more academic – from the alphabet, to her times tables, think there was some Pythagorus theorem in there and then she lost me.  Every time she got close to the EXPERT, he stomped his foot and pushed his hand out.  In response, she crumbled to the floor and dejectedly crawl her way back to her childhood friends of Woof-Dog, Duck-Goose and other cuddly animals before trying her next piece of new found wisdom on said ‘Expert’.

As I watched, I felt.  First sadness, which morphed to anger at how our school systems create an environment where students never feel good enough and the immense stress and pressure they experience is leading to a landslide of mental health challenges. Now grown up, Kay conversed with Frog-Dog-Unkey-Duck-Goose deciding ‘Expert’ didn’t look happy and perhaps he wanted to play with them. Approaching one final time, he accepted and off they went to play.

For me, it signified the barriers we put up to each other when we place more importance on being right and knowing vs. allowing ourselves to feel and be vulnerable, which connects us.  Whether that was Kay’s intention, I’ve no idea.  Not sure I ever will.

Deborah (@DeborahHenley) shared her experiences of motherhood not knowing.  Recalling the most helpful advice she’d received from her mother to trust her gut instinct.  I struggle with this.  Up to 2015, my life practices and behaviours were such that I placed more value on the contribution from my mind, to the point where I don’t think my emotions felt safe showing up in my body any more because I’d bypassed them for so long.  I was envious of people who instinctively seemed to know what they wanted and I desperately wanted to feel, like I thought, they felt.  I didn’t.  Totally disconnected from my gut instinct.  I’ve spent a huge amount of time berating myself for not knowing.

This also came up on meeting John Smith, (aka Rowan Gray – @rowancsgray – the other way round perhaps? I don’t know).  John was asked how he knew what he did or didn’t know?  The response often, ‘I don’t know’ however, there were times I thought I saw a glimpse of the overriding natural desire to say something that showed he did know.  To come across as someone who had the answer (or any answer) – I’m totally projecting here.  But if you take that initial response and start probing with ‘how do you know?‘  It gets murky quickly – I’m ever so practiced at my mind railroading my gut to a place of perpetual confusion.  Inexpert 2018 made me feel a little bit better that it’s an ok way to feel.

Biggest emotional impact for me was Hilary (@hilarygallo) who said nothing at all.  He looked, moved a little and at one point closed his eyes for a minute.  I’m no stranger to silence (two 10 day silent meditation retreats) but silence out of context was anxiety inducing. The points at which he looked like he might say something I felt a palpable build up to the potential collective sigh of relief… that never came.  Aware I was trying to slow my breathing to stop anxiety rising, I remembered Let Go, Notice More and Use Everything and went with the experience, no matter how discomforting.

Here he is in action.  What does the thought of taking near on eight minutes to watch someone say nothing conjure for you?

“Silence isn’t empty, if it were we wouldn’t hear it so loudly”

No idea it’s a quote Steve knows or Steve being profound (he has a knack for that, often when he’s not trying). For me?  Silence was ruddy uncomfortable.

Rob (@robpoynton), master of aforementioned mystical triangle model, also didn’t say anything.  Using gestures he split the audience and waved his arms to conduct the different sections.  He let us make noises until we settled on something vaguely collective he appeared to be happy with.  I work with carefree singing in my business yet the universal power of music (loose description in this case) and rhythm always astounds me.  An exercise in watching and listening – we instinctively knew when to stop and start with a simple flourish of Rob’s hands.  Instant creation of a team.

We played tennis with James (@jrtraeger) as he tried not to lose his sh1t on stage whilst talking about how he often loses his sh1t, particularly when playing bad tennis. Whilst having balls served/thrown at him, he regaled the story of how his temperament was totally unacceptable on losing tennis to a boy of 10 on holiday who’d asked to play with him.

Matt (@WhiteIsleMatt) spoke about things that excited him growing up from  buttons, to calculators, to computers, to car horns, cars you could only climb in through the window, BMX, the A-team van and snooker.  And that was that.

(As a side note, I popped to Pret in the break and Matt was sitting in the window facing the street, I caught his eye and positively BEAMED at him.  I mean a freaky, massive, disconcerting for him grin as he had no idea who I was until I pointed to my Inexpert sticker).

Doug (@DougShaw1) shared the contents of his bag and told stories as a way to find connection.  Gary (@GAldam) and John (@JohnDoolan1) debated archaeology and robots against each other.  I remember thinking that perhaps John was being controlled by robots – my favourite quote being “Brexit is a side show”. Ola talked about nothingness and what it means to be nothing or do nothing, for me I don’t think you can be nothing as nothing is always something (unless we’re all black holes but then even then is it not something because we’ve given it a label?)

Oh and Meg (@OD_optimist) posed the question, ‘What is calculus and what is it good for?’  She didn’t know.  We were invited to explore.  Answers ranged from the emotion evoked by not perceiving to be in the ‘clever club’, to my ‘imposter syndrome’ (bearing in mind I have a Maths degree), to articulate astro-physicists who explained how calculus has benefited mankind.  I can’t remember what they said.  I still don’t know.  And that’s ok.

It sparked a memory of being ok with ‘not knowing’ from my degree days.  Big difference between a friend and I was, early on I accepted being comfortable with getting marks by knowing how to answer a question even though I didn’t really understand the point.  My friend had an insatiable need to understand why.  I’m sure her experience was altogether more frustrating but possibly more fulfilling? Remembered ‘Management Maths’ too – the one module of value where we looked at problems such as running a factory with two machines, with different capacities, raw material inputs and given a bunch of conditions, what was the most effective way to run the factory.  Proper useful stuff.  Pretty sure calculus was involved.  But don’t hold me to it.

“Wild thing, I think I love you.  But I wanna know for sure.”

Would you put your hand in this box?

Steve introduced ‘Don’t Know’ speaker at the start.  It could have been any one of us, well those of us brave enough to put our names in the box.

A right old roller coaster of thought and feeling ensued. I’d say worth the park entry fee as a lesson in self awareness.  Awesome to know my confidence has reached a point I even considered it.  Both breaks spent deliberating (fighting) with myself.  Body experienced the stress reaction of standing UNPREPARED and talking (or not if I’d followed Hilary’s lead).  End of the second break, I found a place of resolve, surge of adrenalin and went to write my name… the box had gone.

What would have talked about?  The idea playing in my head was sharing stories about how the choir I run for people who can’t sing (inexpert in action – and probably part of my attraction to the experiment) has changed lives.  Expect there would have been a rousing audience sing song (although this was also delivered by Steve asking us to sing the theme tune to the Inexpert debate as he prepped the stage – a collective of people singing different things at once – perfect).

Since Friday I’ve replayed this a few times and decided I might have offered the audience two options:

  1. What bumble has taught me about resilience
  2. How bad singing changes lives

During my deliberation, whatever happened, I committed to honour the honesty and bravery shown by all speakers

If nothing else (it was so much else), the whole afternoon was a master class in authenticity.  People speaking and sharing from the heart, humble about their not knowing and prepared to be vulnerable.  It created a huge amount of connection and trust that is often broken down by the bravado created by the power of knowing or perceived knowing.

I’ve written over 2000 words and not even touched on the Inexpert exhibition, Direct Debit Debbie from Tenbury Wells, Nick Parker’s (guessing no relation to Charlie) trumpeting or the crew and support team, all of whom were in positions of inexpertise.

A depiction of the day by the talented David Gifford (@inscriptdesign)

How to wrap up? I likened the whole experience to going to the theatre.

I believe the reason we enjoy arts and culture is because it makes us feel alive. We have an experience that moves us. Inexpert 2018 did that for me.

Although it will be a very different experience to being there, there’s all sorts of multimedia on

My takeaways:

  • The invitation to experience and no pressure to leave having achieved a set of learning objectives was refreshing
  • I find collective silence unnerving
  • I’m way more comfortable than I knew about not knowing.  On telling a friend about the event her response was, “If it had no purpose it sounds like a total waste of time”.  I disagree.  I know I know this.  But I don’t know how I know.
  • It’s ok that the point of sharing my experience and thoughts, is to share my experience and thoughts – although I feel hugely uncomfortable looking at this and not splitting it into more digestible chunks with sub-headings.
  • I want to spend more time with these people
  • The labels we put on things aren’t usually helpful
  • I might add to these…

“Inexpert is like a roast dinner, it carries on cooking when you take it out of the oven” – Steve Chapman