The Beauty of Ambiguity

Life is never straightforward. The destination you start-out for is seldom where you end-up. Twists and turns are a part of being human.

But for most people, uncertainty and ambiguity are not comfortable things. In fact when faced with a situation where there isn’t enough information to make an informed decision, the brain usually engages the amygdala and orbitofrontal cortex. These are the areas that process fear. It is common for the natural fight and flight response to activate as a coping mechanism.

Recently there has been a lot of research and articles about the importance of being comfortable with ambiguity. Successful entrepreneurs and organization leaders need to confidently direct a team towards objectives, even in the face of uncertainty about those goals. This need is magnified with changing technology and our fast-paced culture.

In a 2012 article from Forbes, successful oil businessman and education reformer Jeff Sandefer explains how critical this trait is in today’s leaders. He equates it to leading a team up a hill. You identify the hill they need to take. But even as your team begins to scale, you recognize it’s probably not the right hill and look for evidence to change course.

This tension between committing to action while proving your hypothesis wrong is known as having a high “tolerance for ambiguity”. It is a mark of a great leader…and very rare. So by carving out goals and taking steps towards those goals, even if you are unsure about the direction, the chaos turns into clarity one step at a time.

How can we encourage our children to be comfortable with ambiguity? It is difficult, especially since many schools are focused on high achievement and perfection. If our children are not comfortable with failure, or not given the opportunity to fail, then venturing into uncharted territory is a terrifying experience.

My daughter is struggling in this area with ballet. Year-end recitals are approaching and she is at a place in her practice where her instructor will not be backstage providing cues. She is worried. What if she forgets her entrance? What if one of her fellow dancers miss their mark and she gets confused? The idea of stepping out on her own, even though she is more than capable, reduces her to tears.

So what am I doing? Honestly, I am fumbling around with this one. But mostly I am approaching it twofold:

    1. Focus on success – Remind her to do the hard work and practice so she reduces the likelihood of mistakes.
  1. Prepare for failure – Not only help her walk through how she could recover from a mistake but also help her have a realistic perspective about the repercussions of possible mistakes.

The first one is self-explanatory. If she does the hard work, she reaps the reward of a good performance. She is at an age where she should own her practice. I do not push her other than help her plan the day to include practice time. But she chooses the method and intensity of her training.

The second one is much more important and can be used in a variety of different situations when our kids are struggling with fear or anxiety. In my daughter’s case, she is scared of forgetting what she is supposed to do on stage. Yeah, I get it…it could happen and it would be embarrassing but not fatal. So I have been leading her through a series of questions:

  • How likely is it that your “worst case” will happen?
  • Is there anything you can do to ensure that it will not happen?
  • If it does happen, what would you do? How would you recover? How would you feel?
  • What would you learn from your mistake?

Much like professional athletes visualize a successful game, when fear and uncertainty gets in my child’s head I have them visualize failure. Get familiar with it. Welcome it. Remove the sting and stigma. And then think about how she can grow and learn from that mistake.

It is important that my kids have the confidence to venture out, fail on their own, lick their wounds and come back stronger and bolder from the experience. By practicing on something so meaningless like a dance recital, I hope to prepare her for the bigger challenges in life.

What about you? What areas of your life and kids’ lives does fear impede? Are there challenges and goals that you or your kids put-off because you just are not sure how to take the first step? Run through the questions above and then take a step. By putting one foot in front of each other, you will be much closer to your final goals even if you are unsure about the direction.

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