Doesn’t this phrase sound like a mergers & acquisitions term, doesn’t it conjure the hard-edged confidence of a financial master of the universe, or the certainty of a business school billionaire far, far removed from real life?

Yet …it was romantic Keats, in deep conversation with two friends on a walk home as Christmas approached in 1817, who coined the term as a concise description of the very opposite of certainty.

“….& 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 a man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason…. “

and he was wondering about the ability to NOT possess something, to not find it necessary to understand everything, to not need to be …clever.

It comes bang up to date for me this week after another group experience where everyone found it very hard to even come close to ‘I don’t know’. It prompted some post-event reflection.

A lovely quote from Wilfred Bion – an experienced and humane psychoanalyst –who developed fantastic models of thinking and behaviour for how groups tend to work (or not) – echoed Keats’ thought in the late 1960s.

‘Inability to tolerate empty space limits the amount of space available’

He was reminding us of the need to make ourselves available for new thoughts, to give ourselves a little ‘empty space’. Wilfred Bion was always after ‘truth’, and knew that this takes humility, not knowing, and a goodly portion of ‘negative capability’.

Keats reminds us ‘beauty is truth and truth beauty’…and ‘what the imagination seizes as beauty must be truth’.

It feels right, doesn’t it? Do any of us give ourselves enough empty space, or remember to cultivate negative capability?

Time to experiment. To get into that zone, why not run the next board meeting as a poetry jam?

And then we’ll introduce ‘negative capability’ courses in all Business Schools.

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