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Nonsense: The Power of Not Knowing

3.68  ·  Rating details ·  664 ratings  ·  130 reviews
An illuminating look at the surprising upside of ambiguity—and how, properly harnessed, it can inspire learning, creativity, even empathy
Life today feels more overwhelming and chaotic than ever. Whether it’s a confounding work problem or a faltering relationship or an unclear medical diagnosis, we face constant uncertainty. And we’re continually bombarded with informati
Hardcover, 336 pages
Published October 13th 2015 by Crown (first published April 21st 2015)
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Oct 20, 2015 rated it it was ok
Shelves: 150s, nonfiction
Based solely on the title, "Nonsense" is a tough book to get through in a conceptional manner. Jamie Holmes set himself up with a daunting task: "I'll hope to convince you of a simple claim: in an increasingly complex, unpredictable world, what matters most isn't IQ, willpower, or confidence in what we know. It's how we deal with what we don't understand." Excellent, that sounds extremely intriguing!

Except, then he launches into examples using Mad Libs, 1906 San Francisco earthquake, the Waco B
Aug 14, 2015 rated it liked it
Shelves: r-pfr
Nonsense: The Power of Not Knowing by Jamie Holmes is a review of literature dealing with the topic of ambiguity – how and why we avoid it, what happens when we do, and why it's important to embrace it. The premise of the book is clear. However, the structure of the book is more focused on diverse examples rather than its overall paradigm.

Read my complete review at:

Reviewed for the Penguin First to Read program
Amy Neftzger
Oct 19, 2015 rated it it was amazing
This book brings together several different cognitive theories to help understand how different individuals deal with ambiguous information. While some individuals have a high need for context, others are more comfortable when new information doesn't neatly fit into their current understanding of the world. This is a great book for learning how to understand different points of view and how some individuals choose to interpret events differently from others.

Note I received a free ARC of this tit
Oct 13, 2015 rated it really liked it
Holmes' Nonsense should be titled Ambiguity, or perhaps Uncertainty, and I can only guess that those titles do not poll as well, since the word "nonsense" is used only in the introduction and never again, whereas ambiguity and uncertainty dominate the text. That might seem a trivial distinction, but it's actually pretty important to me. Nonsense is information of little value -- data without meaning. Ambiguity is data with meaning but without a clear conclusion. And it is ambiguity that Holmes' ...more
Casey Schmitz
Jul 30, 2015 rated it really liked it
Shelves: giveaways
I received this book through a Goodreads First Reads giveaway.

Nonsense is built on the relatively intuitive concept that humans are not, as a general rule, fantastic at dealing with ambiguity. As it goes with so many of our evolutionary specialties, our relationship with uncertainty has a tendency to enrich us while simultaneously tormenting us. On one hand, our ability to form patterns and filter out unnecessary information is a tremendous advantage in maximizing brain-space. On the other hand,
Jul 23, 2015 rated it it was amazing
Recommends it for: Brendan, Harry
I got this as a Goodreads Giveaway and read it out loud with my husband. We both thought it was a very intriguing premise. It's core thesis is how we deal with ambiguity in our lives. It outlines how humans have a natural tendency for the most part to try to eliminate ambiguity as much as possible. To search for answers and not just answers but to remove doubt. Over the course of several chapters Mr. Holmes shows how individuals who are more comfortable with ambiguity and not made anxious by it ...more
"You are not so singular in your suspicions that you know but little. The longer I live, the more I read, the more patiently I think, and the more anxiously I inquire, the less I seem to know. . . . Do justly. Love mercy. Walk humbly. This is enough."
I have always loved the preceding John Adams quote, written in a letter to his granddaughter Caroline. I struggle with feeling that I know less as time goes on, especially when it seems that most everyone around me is so certain about everything! No
From start to finish, Nonsense: The Power of Not Knowing is a highly readable, engrossing book that explains how important it is to be able to deal with ambiguity, and not to be always seeking closure. Author Jamie Holmes points out early in the book that successfully dealing with ambiguity and uncertainty does not require a high IQ, but requires that one learns to master the emotional challenge of figuring out what to do when one has no idea what to do. He states that he hopes to convince the r ...more
Leland Beaumont
Oct 18, 2015 rated it really liked it
After the destruction of hurricane Hugo caused 24 counties in South Carolina to be declared disaster areas, there was a sharp increase in both marriages and divorces among couples affected by the storm. Apparently the disruption of the disaster caused many couples to reappraise their uncertain romantic relationships and seek comfort in a new certainty.

This book explores the many important human effects of ambiguity. One thesis of the book is that after experiencing physiologically acute threats,
Aug 19, 2015 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: business
Nonsense was hyped as a book for those, like me, who like Malcolm Gladwell's writing so I was enticed. And it is like Gladwell's books in that Jamie Holmes includes a lot of examples that draw the reader in and allow us to understand through stories, the concept he is conveying.

For example, "we all have an innate ability to form impressions based on limited information… Our urge for resolution is vital both for managing complexity and for learning." Holmes uses examples to explain what he means;
Lydia Trefz
Apr 06, 2016 rated it liked it
It started out amazing, i couldn't put it down. So much so that I told all my friends about this exciting new book I found and the captivating stories I had read so far. But then about a quarter to halfway through story after interesting story and then not so interesting stories... it became pointless and redundant. To be honest I couldn't even finish the last bit, it became so boring. He kept saying the same thing over and over and over... I swear he even told the same exact story twice. Or may ...more
Thomas Emerson
Jul 07, 2015 rated it it was amazing
Jamie Holmes's Nonsense: The Power of Not Knowing is brilliant. I was expecting it to be somewhat dry, as nonfiction often is, but it was a fast read. This is partly due to the fact that Holmes expresses and elaborates on psychological and cognitive studies through real life applications and events. Often I would pause after reading an argument Holmes makes because I can remember times in my life that I was affected by the principles described in the book. Nonsense was both thought provoking and ...more
Maria Lasprilla
May 04, 2018 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: people-are-hard
Although it took me forever to finish this book, it had nothing to do with its quality. It is interesting, brief and well-written enough to complete it in way shorter time, so don't take my timing as a bad sign of the book.

The book was about how "not understanding", about "Nonsense", right? But my cherry on top of the cake was the nice appearance of "Diversity" towards the end. A very dear topic to me, the one of diversity.

Overall, here's what I understood:

It seems that, while it is natural and
Gaylord Dold
Nov 05, 2015 rated it really liked it
Holmes, Jamie. Nonsense: The Power of Not Knowing, Crown Publishers, New York, 2015 (322pp.$27)

“It is time for writers to admit that nothing in this world makes sense,” Chekhov wrote to a friend. “Only fools and charlatans think they know and understand everything…and if an artist decides to declare that he understands nothing of what he sees—this in itself constitutes a considerable clarity…” What Chekhov the artist knew instinctively is now confirmed by a half-century of research by social, co
Damon Glassmoyer
Aug 15, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Ambiguity and uncertainty are a big part of life, and the author encourages his readers to embrace it and live with it to enhance creativity and make better decisions. Great examples throughout.
Azita Rassi
Aug 29, 2017 rated it it was amazing
Beautifully written, brilliantly organized, and very thought-provoking.
Mar 17, 2018 rated it it was ok
This book lives up to its name. Was Mr. Holmes playing a sly trick? Was Nonsense a metabook that purposely delivered information out of order, muddled its points, and seemed easily distracted from its hypothetical flow in order to force readers into an uncomfortable, challenging posture, so that they could wrestle meaning from these pages? Alternately, is this book a scissors-and-glue product of ambition, insufficient research, and really bad editing?

I suspect the latter, and also that I may hav
Dec 10, 2016 rated it really liked it
As a father, I live a life of constant uncertainty mixed with devastating responsibility. Jamie Holmes has written a rather intriguing book for people of my sort: Nonsense: The Power of Not Knowing. In this book, Holmes reveals the natural reactions our brains have when faced with uncertainty, demonstrates the potential dangers of situations where we don't have all the answers, and explores possible benefits of not knowing.
Holmes has researched this topic thoroughly, but spares us the grind. Ins
Russell Bittner
Dec 11, 2015 rated it really liked it
“‘Uncertainty … is the engine of science” (p. 177).

Uncertainty, ambiguity, ambivalence: these are the subjects of Jamie Holmes’s treatise, and he takes pains to make us understand the value of each not only in the realm of science and art, but even in business. It’s an interesting series of hypotheses, and I felt on quite familiar turf with the statistics and multiple case studies Holmes draws upon using the standard tools of Experimental Psychology. (No accident, perhaps, given that Holmes and
Nov 21, 2015 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: non-fiction
My wife once told me that I had a low tolerance for ambiguity. This was many years ago and I am proud to say that I am much more open to the unknown than I was then. It has occurred to me that my love of poetry has always been a way to welcome ambiguity into my life. But this is also the reason so many people hate poetry. Because as a species, humans loathe the unknown. We want right answers and simple solutions. But what I always told my writing students (both in argumentative and creative writ ...more
Dec 02, 2016 rated it really liked it
A fascinating book. One, I think, worth going back and studying, now that I’ve finished an initial read, to consolidate my understanding of key takeaways and contemplate best practices for applying them.

The book’s contents, in brief, as pulled from the prologue:

“This book argues that we manage ambiguity poorly and that we can do better.”

Part 1 “lay[s] the groundwork.”

Part 2 “focuses on the hazards of denying ambiguity” in personal, professional, business, and organizational situations, among oth
Margaret Sankey
Dec 15, 2015 rated it really liked it
Popular science writing explication of studies dealing with peoples' reaction to disruptions in pattern or ambiguity--doomsday cults get stronger when the end time doesn't happen, people get angry when the colors on playing cards are reversed (or when there is no ranch dressing), natural disasters spur waves of weddings. All of this, for me, points to the primary goal of higher education being not confronting students with *an* answer, but giving people the tools and practice to tolerate high de ...more
Nov 23, 2015 rated it it was ok
Shelves: pub-2015
Eh, this book was OK; kind of all over the place but had some interesting tidbits, like the stuff about how language affects one's perspective. Too pop-sciency for my taste. Relied on too many anecdotes, as well as quotations from famous dead writers about ambiguity/uncertainty, and too many fishy conclusions drawn from such. Seemed maybe like a bunch of Atlantic articles strung together. But, it was a quick bedtime read. (As others have noted, the title is all wrong - it should have been "The P ...more
Jan 28, 2016 rated it did not like it
This has a few main premises:

1) People do not like uncertainty - like all human traits this varies from one person to the next in regards to how much this affects them.
2) From a business point of view making decisions based in uncertainty is problematic. People generally are in a hurry to bring closure to a problem and are likely to make rash decisions.
3) As a decision maker it is very important to constantly be aware of your state of mind at all times. If you do this you might be OK with acc
Deb (Readerbuzz) Nance
Dec 21, 2015 rated it really liked it
Nonsense is an exploration of how powerful it can be to not-know, which sounds a little out-there and, of course, it is, and it's full of wonderful paradoxes that will zing your brain one-two, one-two.
Feb 23, 2016 rated it it was ok
The book, like the title is mostly none sense.
An interesting story here and there but keep the title on your shelf and read it tomorrow, always tomorrow.
Alysyn Reinhardt
Jan 05, 2016 rated it liked it
Review coming soon
Jim Razinha
May 22, 2017 rated it it was ok
I had this on my List because I requested it for an advanced read a couple of years ago - wasn't selected - and decided to jump off a couple of other parallel tracks now to check it out.

It's been my experience that lot of books like this could be reduced to a three page tract. Not so this one, but it could have been cut at least in half. I found the connection of too many of the stories - and there are a lot of stories - to the purported points rather tenuous. State a conclusion, stretch someth
Danielle T
In a "post-fact" society, does it matter whether we know something or not? Although Nonsense was published before even primary season took place, this was an unintentionally timely read. I personally tend to prefer knowing versus the unknown, so learning the uses of and embracing (or at least feeling comfortable with) not knowing seems relevant, too.

In general, Nonsense is a very readable book, perfect for the popular science reader but well-cited with extensive end notes (on a stylistic note,
Relax, you're doing fine
Cuốn sách này với mình nó chia ra làm 3 phần.

Phần 1: Non-sense tác giả viết rất đúng cái tựa, hoàn toàn vô nghĩa mình chẳng hiểu tác giả muốn nói cái gì luôn.

Phần 2: Sense, tác giả đi vào trọng tâm khi giải thích về cách thức con người ra quyết định trong những trường hợp bất định, cách con người mắc sai lầm nhưng như thế nào trong những trường hợp đó ... không quá hay nhưng nó ... make-sense. So sánh với "Phi lý trí" tác giả thua 1 bậc, so sánh "Tư duy nhanh và chậm" tác giả thua một đóng bậc,
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“The mind state caused by ambiguity is called uncertainty, and it’s an emotional amplifier. It makes anxiety more agonizing, and pleasure especially enjoyable. The delight of crossword puzzles, for example, comes from pondering and resolving ambiguous clues. Detective stories, among the most successful literary genres of all time, concoct their suspense by sustaining uncertainty about hints and culprits. Mind-bending modern art, the multiplicities of poetry, Lewis Carroll’s riddles, Márquez’s magical realism, Kafka’s existential satire—ambiguity saturates our art forms and masterpieces, suggesting its deeply emotional nature. Goethe once said that “what we agree with leaves us inactive, but contradiction makes us productive.” So it is with ambiguity.” 2 likes
“What counts, then, isn’t so much success or failure but whether we stay in learning mode, continue to seek out ambiguity, and view uncertainty as the doorway to invention.” 1 likes
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