In my last blog on what we can learn from the fog, I talk about the inevitability of unknowns in our life. As interdependence and connection increase, our work and personal lives also become more complex.

Complexity and complicated are often interchanged, but they are different. Complicated things in our lives are more closely related to simple things. The difference is in the number of variables that must be understood. Complicated problems are knowable if we spend enough time analyzing them.

Complex problems have more variables arriving all the time. Just when you thought you understood the problem you are facing; another wild card comes winging in from the external environment that shifts the form the problem takes. In complex problems, problems mutate. They are also different from complicated problems because there are more unknowns than knowns.

What Nature Can Teach Us About Mystery

Nature can be a good teacher about living in a world of complex challenges and problems.  Nature is filled with connections and interdependent relationships. There are a lot of complex dynamics and complex relationships in ecological systems. As John Muir said, “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it is hitched to everything else in the universe.” These interdependent relationships increase both the complexity and mystery found in nature.

We are living in a paradoxical time. We can now see deeper into the mysteries of the mind, body, and nature. At the same time, more mysteries emerge.

For example, for the first time, technology has allowed us to explore the sea under the ice shelf in Antarctica. Previously it was thought that nothing lived under that sea because of the ocean’s cold temperature and darkness. What they found was that it was filled with many species that were never seen before. Scientists estimated that the diversity of species rivaled the number of species found in coral reefs, which are known to have more than 9,000,000 diverse species. We have also used our ability to see into our DNA and genes to form new therapies for cancer and other diseases.  

In the 20th century, our approach to mystery was to eliminate it. In organizations, we pursued clarity and knowing. We used metrics and analytics to understand what is occurring and make decisions. Today, big data is the extension of this pattern from the last century.

In a world of complexity, our pursuit of knowledge has limits. The dynamics of living in an interdependent world means that there will always be things we don’t fully understand. Some mysteries will reveal themselves and some mysteries will remain. Mystery is an essential element of complexity.

How Do We Learn to Enjoy Mystery?

We are living in times where even the unknowns are unknown. That is an implication of increasing complexity. Learning to enjoy and accept that there will be unknowns in our life is the first step. Like looking into a fog bank, we need to manage our expectations and frustrations about the lack of clarity as we approach a mystery or unknown. Instead of freezing when we face unknowns, we need to ramp up our learning and ability to adapt to what is emerging.

Complex situations can’t be understood by analyzing them because new variables keep showing up. The connectivity of the situation regularly creates new connections that interact in unpredictable ways.

I once heard a sportscaster who was covering the World Cup say, “The ball is round, anything can happen.” This is the essence of complexity; the number of connections and interdependencies can never be fully known. Therefore, the 21st century will require us to learn to enjoy mysteries for what they are. Unknowable things will continually show up in our organizations and in our world. Our challenge is to learn to live with and appreciate them for what they are: a natural part of all life.


Dr. Kathleen E. Allen writes a blog on leadership and organizations that describes a new paradigm of leadership that is based in lessons from nature and living systems. She is the author of Leading from the Roots: Nature Inspired Leadership Lessons for Today’s World (available for digital download June 5, 2018) and President of Allen and Associates, a consulting firm that specializes in leadership, innovation, and organizational change. You can sign up for her blog on her website: