What we know is what we believe.

I’ve just finished reading an excellent book on scientific history with many insights on the nature of knowledge and innovation. What Is Real? The Unfinished Quest for the Meaning of Quantum Physics, by Adam Becker, presents an intellectual adventure story. Physicists, since the early 20th Century, have sought to understand the world at its smallest level, the stuff of which atoms are made. At the heart of this quest, a mystery awaits. While quantum physics works—its mathematics underlies much modern technology—to this day no one understands why the equations are effective. Not even the brightest physicists can agree on the meaning of the math and its consequences for the “real world” around us.

This is a very human tale of cherished assumptions, professional ego, and fear of ambiguity. The story illustrates how we cling to interpretations of the world that have proven useful, even when they stifle the ability to make new discoveries. Many of us have glimpsed moments of this during our careers. This human tendency suggests that value can be found in occasionally taking a step back to reconsider how we view our lives, goals, and behavior, no matter how successful they have been.

What we know can more accurately be described as what we believe. These beliefs, our accumulated knowledge and experience, are the stories we tell ourselves and others. They can be powerful, allowing us to grow skills, achieve goals, and anticipate future opportunities. They may hold up as valid assumptions based on events of the past. Yet these stories may also be incomplete and thus fail to serve the present or future. We are tempted to rely on them as crutches long after we no longer need them. They may keep us moving even as they limit how far or in what direction we may go. Worse, their use rules out other non-apparent options. Without the confines of our cherished belief-stories, we can explore where crutches cannot tread. New possibilities can emerge from outside the realm of previous possibility. This new terrain is fertile ground for innovation.

For nearly a century, the mystery of quantum physics has been clung to with an almost religious fervor. When quantum theory was first developed in the early 1900s, inconvenient implications emerged right away. The physics predicted odd things: sub-atomic particles could change the moment a particle was observed. It was as if the act of observing and measuring would change the thing itself. Also, quantum theory described how events happening in one place could instantly influence seemingly unrelated events elsewhere, even faster than the speed of light. The math and its practical applications supported these phenomena. But how could they exist? Debate erupted immediately, and all the proposed explanations were exposed to hold flaws or dismissed as lacking scientific rigor. Yet the dominant view, settled on early, held its own vague assertion that no explanation was necessary or even possible. The math worked, and that was enough. “Shut up and calculate” was the attitude, as described by one dissenting physicist, David Mermin. The dominant belief-story insisted that the search for deeper meaning would be fruitless, a waste of time, an abstraction. Dissenters from Albert Einstein to creative thinkers in the decades afterwards were marginalized for questioning this dogma. Only in recent years has momentum gathered for the physics profession to challenge the power of this discussion-ending belief-story in science.

The newly fashionable reassessment has begun to allow fresh inquiry, including research informed by other fields of science. Understanding why quantum theory works can reveal new possibilities for both research and technological applications. How we define knowledge and what is knowable offers a tantalizing prospect: intransigent problems might be surmountable after all if viewed from a fresh perspective.

We can reconsider our belief-stories and how much they continue to aid us or hold us back. While not easy to do, doing so can help overcome challenges that defy our usual answers. I discovered coaching as a tool for reflection on the stories I tell myself. In the process, I unlocked fresh solution possibilities for my most frustrating life challenges. If you’d like to learn more about coaching, please reach out to me.

In the meantime, here’s a micro-practice. In moments of anxiety or frustration, pause, slow your breathing. Consider what you know to be true of the difficult situation. Ask yourself three questions:

  1. Are these truths still true?

  2. Were they ever true, or did they merely describe experience to an adequate degree?

  3. If they could be beliefs rather than truths, what else would be possible?

Stryk Thomas