Negative Capability, that is, when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.
– John Keats
I. Senior year of high school was one of the most nerve-racking times for me. Not that I was worried about my academic success, which I’m glad I wasn’t because no boss has ever asked what I got in English that year. But because what seemed like the rest of my life hung on one fateful decision: what my plans were for after high school.
The uncertainty most people face their senior year of high school as they consider which college to attend, where to live, or where to work is undeniable. And for some, it’s almost overbearing. But as I’ve come to learn in the few short years since I’ve graduated, that uncertainty was only a glimpse of what will come the rest of life.
The ability to not just deal with but thrive with uncertainties is what the young poet John Keats calls Negative Capability – one’s ability to remain in uncertainties and mysteries. Cultivating Negative Capability for those tough life decisions is important, but Keats was alluding to a much more creative use of the term, saying that Negative Capability “went to form a Man of Achievement, especially in literature, and which Shakespeare possessed so enormously.1”
II. Shakespeare’s ability to put himself in the life and minds of each of his characters, even those that were evil, without judging them is what Keats so admired about his writings.
But Shakespeare wasn’t the only creative who could do so. Mozart’s ability to utilize different styles of music without forming opinions that some were better than others was how he practiced Negative Capability. Robert Greene points out in his book, Mastery, that Bach’s music was very different from that of Mozart’s. But instead of dismissing Bach’s compositions as less than his own, he studied Bach’s music and intertwined the two styles for a new, different style of music.
That’s where the benefit of practicing Negative Capability pays off. If you’re quick to dismiss an idea, philosophy, book, or person, you don’t allow yourself to explore those mysteries waiting to be discovered. Greene explains in order to practice Negative Capability:
“You must develop the habit of suspending the need to judge everything that crosses your path…You do anything to break up your normal train of thinking and your sense that you already know the truth.”
Read books from authors you haven’t heard of.
Watch YouTube videos from channels to which you’re not subscribed.
Look at problems in fields unrelated to the one in which you work.
But most importantly, be okay with the mystery that comes with asking questions about why things are the way they are.
“The need for certainty is the greatest disease the mind faces.”
– Robert Greene
III. With anything in life, there’s a caveat to this. Although practicing Negative Capability is important, it becomes dangerous if you never get out of that mindset. Once you’ve evaluated all the options and considered all angles for how to solve a problem, make a decision and run with it. Sitting around and pondering ideas is an important practice, but if it’s all you do you’ll never create anything inspiring or original.
Doing that just reminds me of this scene from Good Will Hunting:
With that, I leave you to have an inspiring, thought-provoking, curiosity-filled Monday and hope that spirit continues throughout the week.
Keats, John. “Negative Capability.” http://mason.gmu.edu/~rnanian/Keats-NegativeCapability.html
Greene, Robert. Mastery.