The Importance of Confusion


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When I begin an on-site training program I start by saying:

“Hi everyone. I’ll begin with a warning: I use confusion as a teaching tool. Confusion is merely your brain attempting to input new information and not finding circuits to translate it. Stuff you already know goes down familiar circuits and it’s comfortable. Your confusion is merely your brain telling you it has no circuits to translate the new data – and you’re learning! And it makes me SO happy!”

The participants laugh uncomfortably. But then it becomes a sort of gentle contest – who can be the MOST confused. Invariably someone says

“Sharon-Drew, you’ll be SO proud of me! I’m SOOOO confused!”

And everyone laughs together and claps in knowing agreement.


I wonder why confusion is something to be avoided. Why do we all have to ‘know’ everything? Why can’t we delight in the mystery, the jumble, the dark moving spaces that bring that slight bit of discomfort, a touch of fear and dollop of curiosity?

When we think we ‘know’ something, it’s because we’re using circuits that already exist in our brains. Sadly, we assume what we ‘know’ is accurate, even if it ends up being inaccurate or biased, even if it means we end up dismissing new content that might be more accurate, even if it means we restrict learning anything new.

Old beliefs, previous knowledge, habits and assumptions become concretized over time, and new ideas become suspect because there’s no precedent for them even if the new ideas are more cogent. Our brains just love our status quo. Simple. Stable. Quick. Reality? No such thing.

How do new ideas get into the world when they’re contrary to existing myths and norms? Why isn’t ok to be confused and then curious to research, think, debate new ideas?

Entire fields remain committed to researching within the confines of perceived wisdom, even when they suspect, or know, it’s not working. How does something new enter if confusion, or the ‘unknown’, isn’t considered?

Remember flat earthers? What about radio waves? Did you know only one painting of Cezanne’s was purchased during his life? Or that it took 40 years after the invention of the telephone to begin broad use – using Morse Code instead? Are you aware that initially Bill Gates told his team that he wasn’t convinced the internet had value? Seriously.


One of the initiators of our confusion is the way words enter our brains and get translated. You see, when we hear someone speak, our brains don’t accurately translate what the speaker intends to communicate!

Sound – in this case, words – enter as vibrations, get turned into signals after being filtered by our beliefs, then get dispatched to ‘similar-enough’ existing circuits that were formed from similar – but not the same – words. And any meaning, any vibrations, that don’t match our existing (and comfortable, accepted) circuits, get discarded or resisted.

When I learned this (see my book on the subject – What?), I created a ‘curiosity’ trigger as an override in my brain when I experience resistance or disbelief, and now go straight to confusion instead so I can potentially learn something new.

I adore confusion. It means I’m creating new circuits. It means I’m learning!


Our brains are the problem. Indeed, because of the way we subjectively interpret new ideas we end up restricting our lives. The thing is, everything, regardless of what science thinks, or what our spouses or bosses want us to believe is true, is a subjective interpretation that we live our lives committed to!

What we read or enjoy; the colors we see and the words we hear; the friends and jobs and neighborhoods we choose; are restricted to the circuits that already exist in our brains – what we agree with and the worlds our brain circuits have created for us – obviously a carefully calibrated world view; obviously restricting a whole lotta world out there we don’t recognize or enjoy or share. We could all use a little confusion now and again.

To allow ourselves to be confused, we’d have to ignore, override or at least hide from view, some of our biases. So rather than guess what your biases are, I’ll pose some questions of you, because I’m sure confused why you’d rather keep doing what you’re doing rather than face confusion and learn, change, and be enriched:

  • What would you need to believe differently to be willing to rid yourself from some of your biases? Do you know which ones you’d be willing to part with? How do you know your answer isn’t biased?
  • How would you know that any confusion is worth the cost of ‘not knowing’ and being uncomfortable?
  • What issues come up for you when you face the prospect of being confused in an area you’re expert in?
  • Are there any areas of your life or work knowledge that you protect, that you prefer not to feel confusion around because you believe you have all the knowledge you need – and it’s accurate? Would you be willing to examine these to see if there is anything new to learn? Any areas for you to rethink?
  • Think of a topic, an idea that runs counter to your beliefs and spend time with it. No, really. Spend enough time to understand it, and know precisely how it differs from your beliefs. See if you can find any fragment in there that confuses you that you’d be willing to think about for a day or two.

We live our lives, work our jobs, vote and go to neighborhood meetings, accustomed to having an automatic answer, knowledge at the ready that has been vetted by our brains, accepted and comfortable. But to gain new knowledge, reconsider old opinions, mature your beliefs and self-asessments, you can create new circuits, and then have a whole new knowledge set.

All you need is some curiosity and the willingness to be confused for a bit of time. You’re worth it, no?

Sharon-Drew Morgen
I'm an original thinker. I wrote the NYT Bestseller Selling with Integrity and 8 other books bridging systemic brain change models with business, for sales, leadership, communications, coaching. I invented Buying Facilitation(R) (Buy Side support), How of Change(tm) (creates neural pathways for habit change), and listening without bias. I coach, train, speak, and consult companies and teams who seek Servant Leader models.


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