Encyclopaedia Britannica defines negative capability as:
“… a writer’s ability, “which Shakespeare possessed so enormously,” to accept uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.”
This phrase was first used by John Keats in a letter to his brothers in 1817.
Negative capability is the capacity to embrace mystery. To be still and observe or reflect before we rush into fixing situations that we barely understand with our previously accumulated knowledge, which might be inadequate given the circumstances.
In essence, it is the courage to admit that we do not always know how things will pan out; and the self discipline to let new possibilities unfold without meddling. This is the force that drives creativity and discovery, for one can not advance their knowledge by always falling back on predetermined conclusions.
Only by surrendering to life’s big questions can we arrive at new inventions and previously unimagined insights.
One very practical application of negative capability is starting before you feel ready. In a story recounted by James Clear, Richard Branson describes how he founded his now globally successful airlines company, egged on by serendipity and a little blind faith!
“I was in my late twenties, so I had a business, but nobody knew who I was at the time. I was headed to the Virgin Islands and I had a very pretty girl waiting for me, so I was, umm, determined to get there on time.
At the airport, my final flight to the Virgin Islands was cancelled because of maintenance or something. It was the last flight out that night. I thought this was ridiculous, so I went and chartered a private airplane to take me to the Virgin Islands, which I did not have the money to do.
Then, I picked up a small blackboard, wrote “Virgin Airlines. $29.” on it, and went over to the group of people who had been on the flight that was cancelled. I sold tickets for the rest of the seats on the plane, used their money to pay for the chartered plane, and we all went to the Virgin Islands that night.”
— Richard Branson
If the Virgin Group founder and business magnate had reached for certainty, he never would have thought to charter that private plane that he couldn’t afford. He probably would have done what all the other passengers did and relied on the airlines to fix the situation; but he took matters into his own hands, guided only by his determination to achieve his goal for the night.
As you write the next chapter of your life story, make like Branson and start before you feel ready, remembering to apply a little negative capability whenever you face uncertainty.
On top of the personal goals that you’ve set, leave some room for the unforeseeable opportunities.
Don’t be too rigid with your plans that you miss out on new ideas, or too impatient with your execution that you quit before you begin to see results.
In the words of Jonah Lehrer, “the only way to be creative over time — to not be undone by our expertise — is to experiment with ignorance, to stare at things we don’t fully understand.”