By Angela Noel
March 9, 2017
“It’s like raisin bread,” Ryan Allshouse explained, drawing a blue rectangle on his white board studded with blue dots, “As the bread bakes, it expands and the raisins get farther away from each other.”
“I still don’t get it,” I said. “How can the universe be expanding? Expanding into what? The bread expands into the air. Where there was air, the bread is now taking up the space. When the universe expands what gives way?” I cross my arms and tap my foot, brow furrowed, unhappy with the raisin bread explanation.
Ryan laughs. “I don’t know.”
Years ago, Ryan might have kept this conversation going. He might have argued with me and showed me the research on the expanding universe and why, from a space/physics/science-y perspective, my question was silly. But this Ryan, older, wiser, and passionate about knowledge and deep thoughts, has learned the importance of not-knowing. He’s learned the immeasurable value of the one statement every human can (and should) make, regardless of years of study and expertise.
How “I don’t know” Can Save a Life
Ryan isn’t just a space buff, he’s also really into wine. He and wife Michelle honeymooned at bed and breakfasts in Michigan’s wine country. They so loved the experience of learning about and tasting wines they decided to do more than just drink the stuff. Ryan even convinced his parents to grow grapes on their Minnesota hobby farm seven years ago.
He’s had good crops and bad ones. But what he loves most about it, aside from the wine itself, is the tinkering. He loves accounting for variables, tweaking this and that, testing, and changing all the time. Winemaking as a discipline is very similar to medicine. It is, as Dr. Kevin Jones said on the TED stage, “Knowledge in process.” The key to practicing winemaking, medicine, or a host of other professions or pursuits, is a combination of two essential traits, humility and curiosity.
Dr. Jones is a surgeon and a specialist in treating sarcoma, a rare form of cancer. He says, “. . . if I am humble and curious, when a patient asks me a question, and I don’t know the answer, I’ll ask a colleague who may have a similar albeit distinct patient with sarcoma. We’ll even establish international collaborations. Those patients will start to talk to each other through chat rooms and support groups. It’s through this kind of humbly curious communication that we begin to try and learn new things.”
No two sarcoma patients are the same. Similarly, no two grape vines, or climates, or soils are the same. Just as Dr. Jones seeks partners as he diagnoses and treats patients, so too does Ryan seek partners from the Grape Growers Association he works with. Today, Ryan knows as well as Dr. Jones that the “blank spaces” are just as important as what is known. But Ryan wasn’t born wise. He had to learn how to honor the blank spaces, and it wasn’t easy.
The first time Ryan encountered the importance of humility was when he and his oldest brother, Aaron, were earning extra money as young teens by mowing and maintaining the yard of their neighbor. George, a successful businessman and a bit of scary dude, taught Ryan more than how to trim a hedge.
“I was kinda moping around,” Ryan explained, “getting ready to mow. George let me go on for about an hour, just watching me. Then he came out, took the gas-powered trimmer from my hands and said, ‘Follow me and watch how hard I work.’ After about fifteen minutes, George stopped and said, ‘when you’re ready to work like that, you can come back.’ I went home ashamed, but the next day I came back and got to work.”
He could have stayed away from George’s house after that, but he didn’t. He went back to keep learning. However, even the most profound lessons lose potency over time. Ryan would need a reminder.
Stay Humble and Get Curious
After college he lost his moral compass for a while. Though Ryan didn’t become anything like a criminal, he shared one thing in common with them; he felt entitled to something that wasn’t his. He says of that time, “I had this sort of arrogance–I felt overly empowered with no power. Like I needed to be important in some way.”
For years, Ryan had worked a corporate job under leaders who warned him that he needed help. They’d warned he wouldn’t see the kind of success he thought he deserved by behaving as if he was entitled to it. But he wasn’t listening. Finally, a mentor sat him down and said, “You need help, and I can help you.” She, Debora, offered him not only advice, but advocacy. At a time when his job may have been in jeopardy, she offered a lifeline and he was finally ready to take it.
Through Debora, he got curious about what he didn’t know and what he couldn’t see. He learned to cultivate more relationships that helped him to think about things differently. Over time, he developed a kind of advisory board, employing a variety of mentors or coaches to keep stretching his mind. All because he realized what had led him astray was his conviction that he already knew the answers.
Today, Ryan has become adept at what Naomi Orestes, a science historian working to explain why science should be trusted, calls “organized skepticism.” He listens to what he’s being told, but then takes a thoughtful approach to learning more, and proving out the theory for himself. He wants to know not only what is true, but also how and when it’s true. As a result, he invites others to go beyond the easy answer. What is truth today takes on nuance and meaning as life continues to evolve around us.
Scientists, like Dr. Jones, and Ryan in his vintner role, attempt to tell a story through using what is known and applying it to new circumstances. Each patient outcome or bottle of wine is the sum total of both the known and unknown. Writers and artists, too, approach their craft as a process of co-creation.
Embrace the Dance
Fellow wine-enthusiast and writer Susan Mary Malone equates character development to winemaking “. . .characters ripen and mature as the book takes shape, as branches sprawl out and are carefully weaved into the whole. Of how the plot changes the characters and characters drive the plot.” Malone continues, “It’s all a dance between the thing created, and the one at the helm of creation.”
Ryan’s own character development in the story of his life continues to evolve. The man I know today asks excellent questions, radiates kindness, and carefully considers what he may have missed before arriving at a conclusion. He hasn’t lost his ability to make a point, or arrive at a decision, he’s only gained curiosity about how to continue the discussion when the time is right. His universe continues to expand, leaving more space between the ideas he already has and the ones he has yet to know.
Perhaps that’s the answer to my confusion all those years ago: The universe isn’t expanding into something else, it’s creating itself anew.
If Ryan can do it, so can I. So can you.
Be awesome in real life.
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Your turn: Who has influenced your life story?
14 thoughts on “Simple Lessons in a Complex World”
Angela, this post resonated on so many levels with me. While training to be a surgeon (several decades ago now), we were taught that “I don’t know” wasn’t an option. It was a good thing as a resident to force myself to keep looking for answers, and to develop confidence in those answers. However, when I was through with training, it was a difficult habit to break. But, as you describe so well, embracing humility and the JOY of curiosity again, made all the difference. “I don’t know, but we’ll work together to find an answer” makes all the difference in the world.
Thanks for sharing and reminding me of this valuable lesson.
Hi, Gabe! WOW. Thank you for sharing your experience during your medical training and beyond. I think our world puts doctors (and all professionals) in a tough spot when we expect a kind of immutable truth from them. I heard a wonderful quote from Glennon Doyle Melton. She said, in essence, our only job is to show others how we’re learning. Now, that might not be true in all situations. But I’d much rather have a physician that approached my situation as a challenge we’ll solve together-as you say- rather than rely solely on his or her expertise to tell me what’s going on inside my body. I like to think that’s true of authors or personal development gurus. We’re all just trying to figure stuff out, and we get there when we get there. The important part is that we keep trying to get there.
You are a delight-thank you for stopping by.
“Embracing humility and the joy of curiosity again.” What a great phrase! Thanks for your words.
I am so honored and humbled that you mentioned me in this, Angela! I love, love, love this post. Like you, I’ve often had that thought–the Universe is expanding into WHAT? It’s one of those questions that tweaks me 🙂
And isn’t it funny how if we stay open, the Universe does become curiouser and curiouser . . . I love Ryan’s openness–and yours. And this, just this: “What is truth today takes on nuance and meaning as life continues to evolve around us.”
Thank you again from my humble heart.
Hi, Susan! THANK YOU! I’m enjoying your journey as your research your newest book. All writers are gardeners and growers in some way, right? We each hope to tease goodness from the gifts of nature and circumstance all around us. I love what you’re doing (and jealous of all the wine tasting!) 🙂
Oh, so true, Angela–writers are gardeners and growers! It’s just what we do. And yes, ma’am–the wine tasting is a tough job, but as they say, somebody’s gotta do it 🙂
Humility is a wonderful thing. It opens us up to all kinds of positive experiences. And it keeps us from the scourge of shame that comes from being humiliated by those who refuse to say, “I don’t know.”
I agree! 🙂
I still struggle sometimes saying, “I don’t know” because if feels like admitting I’m less than, not that I’m seeking knowledge. Thanks for the reminder that those three words can be very powerful.
Hi, Traci! I am absolutely certain you (and I) are not alone. For myself, the need to “prove” I was worthy played a role in my own aversion to ‘I don’t know.’ Many, many messages from many, many sources had to permeate my brain to convince me that trying to be right was all wrong. Trying to learn, and allowing others see me learn, was much better. I think that’s why Ryan’s journey resonated with me.
As always, thank you for your thoughtful comment!
Absolutely fantastic post, Angela! An excellent reminder, particularly for those of us who teach. There is always more we can learn.
Thank you, Emily! I’m in awe of the wonderful people, like yourself, who teach others. I’m so glad you stopped by!
Woah, there was so much in this post to think about. I love the term organized skepticism. I think that’s what I am aspiring to… weighing and reflecting on things and making up my own very curious mind!
Thank you for reading, Linda! I’m glad you found something in Ryan’s story to connect with. I agree, that term, “organized skepticism,” is a useful one for all of us. We can love the world and everything in it, but to really understand it we have to question, probe, and seek–not just accept what we’ve been told undigested. I’m looking forward to reading more on your blog!