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The Benefits of Ambiguity in a Messy World

Western civilization offers up one of the earliest metaphors for ambiguity in a messy world—the depiction of Adam and Eve in the garden. Does it get any better? Two people enjoying a partnership of the first order in the midst of paradise. Can you imagine? The bluest sky, sunshine overhead, exotic birds, and a valley overflowing with exotic flowers?

So, there they were, Adam and Eve reigning over the earth, and the one thing that separated them from all living things was they had the freedom to choose.

Choice is a beautiful thing when we exercise wisdom. Eve, however, simply wasn’t prepared for the unexpected. The arrival of that darned serpent through her a curve. She became confused, made a bad decision, and that half eaten apple has wreaked havoc on us ever since.

Ambiguity is now part of the game, so we’d better learn to live with it.

Here’s something to consider. Wise people understand that they have to be prepared to be unprepared for the unexpected.

Yes, you heard me correctly. You can’t be prepared for the unexpected because the very nature of ambiguity is that it sneaks up on us just like that serpent and places us in situations where our existing knowledge, understanding, and rules do not seem to apply.

Here’s the good news, and you know how I love good news. We still have the freedom to choose.

We can choose to accept ambiguity, embrace it even, and when we come to recognize that it is part of business and part of life, we can actually benefit from it. In short, how we handle ambiguity impacts our sense of self and our capacity for health and a meaningful life.

You’ll know when ambiguity hits because you may find yourself uncertain, confused, perhaps even overwhelmed or frustrated.

Between running a business, rearing a child with special needs, travel, and getting two Masters and a Ph.D over the last too many years, I can tell you that I’ve learned a lot about the value of ambiguity.

Here’s a few things you’ll want to consider the next time you feel yourself sucked into the challenges of a messy world.

Ambiguity, when fully taken on:

  • Increases our critical thinking skills
  • Helps us to be more responsive to that which is yet unknown
  • Enhances our creativity and capacity to problem solve
  • Results in greater self-confidence.
  • Grants us wisdom and peace of mind

The renowned Oswald Chambers reminds us that our nature is to seek the glory of peak “mountaintop experiences.” When we stand upon that mountaintop so certain about that which we know, we can easily fall in love with our own knowledge and propensity for success. We can delude ourselves into thinking we’ve got the world under control, literally at our feet.

Wisdom demands a far deeper understanding: Any mountaintop experience is short-lived. Resist this truth, and you will undoubtedly find yourself disappointed.

Chambers further reminds, “We are made for the valley and the ordinary things of life,and that is where we have to prove our stamina and strength . . . The mountaintop is not meant to teach us anything, it is meant to make us something.”

Yes, we must climb out of the valley of ambiguity to grow stronger. Yes, being in the valley can be painful and confusing because our worldview is somewhat limited, altered, or diminished. But, the important thing to remember is that it is in the valley that we build character.

Character prepares us for the next uphill climb. Once again, we reach the next mountaintop experience, only now we have greater wisdom and are better prepared for the uncertainties of life ahead.

Are you beginning to get the picture? This space between ambiguity and wisdom is cyclical. As we move in and out of it, we wake up to a new and bigger experience of life.

I challenge you, then, to think about the beauty of this cycle.

Step into it. Embrace it. Celebrate ambiguity when it comes your way. I can promise you greater insight, wisdom, and peace of mind. I can promise you freedom in knowing that the next valley will be far less daunting.

Published by Sharon Spano, Ph.D. October 7, 2014