Understanding Negative Capability: How Being Comfortable With Uncertainty is Your Greatest Asset as an Entrepreneur

The atmosphere of collaboration and teambuilding can feel uncertain and ambiguous at times, causing it to be overwhelming and challenging for many people. Which is part of why the discomfort of collaboration can unfortunately lead many people to avoid it all together. Luckily there’s a solution.

There is a concept called “Negative Capability” that was initially coined by Poet John Keats when describing writers like Shakespeare and artists like Picasso who were able to work within high levels of uncertainty and doubt, and even find a way to delight in it and produce incredible work.

Keats used the term to describe one’s ability to accept not having an immediate answer, and being willing to explore how something could evolve before a clear outcome appears.

This concept not only applies to writers and creatives, it applies to business, our personal struggles, and even our collaborative relationships too. 

So we have put together a quick explanation of how negative capability can welcome curiosity, focus, and resolution in your life as a collaborator.

Regardless of industry, this skill can help you boost your team building and collaborative processes exponentially and all you need to do is look within yourself.


What Negative Capability Looks Like In Action:

Negative Capability is the advanced ability to accept uncertainty, mystery, doubt, and ambiguity. Often in entrepreneurship, we lack a template, or instruction manual to follow step by step for our ideas. Yet we still manage to enjoy the journey and many of us even have a tendency to delight & relish in the sense of feeling lost. That’s in essence, part of the experience of utilizing Negative Capability.

To understand a bit better let’s discuss the difference between Passive & Active Uncertainty and how it will shape our understanding of Negative Capability.

Passive Uncertainty:

  1. “Fight or Flight” impacts decision making
  2. Typically comes from a place of ignorance or general insecurity
  3. Supports ‘Decisive Action’ that at times can irrationally and irritably reach beyond fact and reason.

Active Uncertainty:

  1. Uncertainty that comes from being without a template to follow
  2. The ability to delight and relish in the sense of feeling lost
  3. Supports ‘Reflective Inaction‘. Which just means to resist defaulting back to defensive routines when leading at the limits of one’s knowledge.

Negative Capability deals more in the realm of active uncertainty. Which is the uncertainty that comes from lacking a template to follow, and from paving your own way in life with little to no direction to help guide your way.

This type of uncertainty is common in team situations and collaborative environments because there are many minds with many different ideas and perspectives, causing a lot of ambiguity.

As a creator, ambiguity is just part of the game and that’s exactly why it’s important to learn how to cooperate with one another.

Which we can do that by suspending critical judgement until the end result & staying flexible to many possible outcomes rather than being overly attached to an early vision of success.


How Does Practicing Negative Capability Impact Your Life & Work?

  1. You’ll feel less hurried and chaotic.
  2. Increased curiosity & desire to discover truth.
  3. Enriched decision making capacity.
  4. Provides an alternative solution to managing stress. anxiety, and overwhelm.
  5. Establishes a mental foundation for navigating collaborative disagreements.
  6. Reduces pressure of fallout from missed expectations and misunderstandings.
  7. Makes a more flexible environment for communication, opinions, ideas & feedback.
  8. Infuses mindfulness and reflection into the work life processes.
  9. Encourages exploration, experimentation, innovation, and adaptability.
  10. Ensures that you don’t prematurely jump to conclusions that may appear more certain, but are in fact suboptimal.
  11. Helps your team remain focused and excited even when a project may be far from its end goal.
  12. Gives you the chance to appreciate fully and experience wholly the things that to others, often appear to transcend logic.
  13. Unafraid of being wrong or making mistakes because you see these as opportunities to grow and gain knowledge.
  14. It encourages the mindset that there are things that reason, alone, cannot always adequately explain. 
  15. Pushes you to remain flexible to many possible outcomes rather than being overly attached to an early vision of success.

So How Do You Practice Negative Capability?

  1. Disregard the need to analyze and control every detail when working within a team, or collaborative partnership.
  2. Practice regularly thinking and playing with new ideas and perspectives without judgement.
  3. Always tell a story with your ideas and vision, because in reality you are the only one who can actually see your vision. Which means you’ll need to get really good at storytelling and really believe in your story too.
  4. Push yourself to explore situations where you are less knowledgeable, experienced, or comfortable and let yourself sit in that uncertainty. Use this to challenge yourself to adapt, grow, and gain knowledge about something that you may not be super familiar with.

Negative capability is a universally accessible mental tool that can help us all grow and continue a smooth transition into a more flexible and collaborative work culture. 

2020 absolutely catapulted this transition far ahead. Which is exciting, but now that the chaos is winding down we are able to continue the transition more mindfully and make sure that all of our collaborative efforts prove to be impactful and well thought out.


If you are interested in learning more about this topic or how to overcome your own collaborative roadblocks:

Reach out to us anytime, or read the book linked below that was used as inspiration for this post!

Concept of “Negative Capacity” excerpted from book: HBR Review : Guide to Managing Strategic Initiatives : Lead with confidence, overcome roadblocks, and put strategy into action.

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