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Tolerating Ambiguity and Uncertainty to Help You Succeed

What traits set a person up for success? Most people think that success comes as a result of intelligence, skill, circumstance, hard work, or even luck. But there are some less widely-recognized indicators of success as well. Today, we’re talking about one that doesn’t get nearly the amount of attention it deserves. We’re talking about how tolerating ambiguity and uncertainty can help you succeed.

Tolerating ambiguity and uncertainty

I once read a story about a prospective journalist interviewing for a position at a newspaper in an unfamiliar city. He flew in for his interview and met with the paper’s editor, who challenged him to find and write “a story” to be turned in at the end of the workday. No other direction was given.

The man did some digging and came up with a decent story, which he submitted on time. But when he did, the editor told him that his assignment was less about the story he wrote, and more about his reaction to the challenge. How would he react when he was given so little direction about the task? Would he panic at the prospect of having to write an impressive story, about a town he knew nothing about, in so little time?

In other words, the real test was how well this journalist could tolerate ambiguity and uncertainty.

What exactly does that mean?

Ambiguity can also be called “inexactness.” Something that is ambiguous might have more than one answer or interpretation. There is no clear-cut solution or absolutely correct route. 

Similarly, uncertainty also deals with not having an answer you can be 100% confident about. When you’re uncertain, you can’t be sure about what the solution is or how to proceed.

Being able to tolerate these things means being able to accept the fact that you don’t know the answer, without letting it hold you back or paralyze you. You don’t have to be happy about the lack of certainty, but you’re able to move forward, even with it lurking in the background.

No matter what field you work in, at some point, you’ll find yourself in a situation that feels ambiguous or uncertain. This may be a situation you’ve never been in before, a situation with no clear solution (or no clear definition of the problem), or a situation that pushes you out of your comfort zone in some way. 

What it looks like (and what it doesn’t)

What does a person who tolerates ambiguity and uncertainty look like? How do they behave? What do they think?

Generally speaking, I find that people who can handle the unknown tend to be:

  • Curious. People who can tolerate ambiguity are more likely to ask questions and explore unconventional answers. 
  • Optimistic. If you can’t handle uncertainty, it’s probably because you’re assuming the worst is going to happen. A tolerance for uncertainty, on the other hand, conveys a more optimistic lookout.
  • Proactive. Tolerating uncertainty means you don’t wait around for someone to tell you exactly what to do or how to do it. Instead, you’re willing to start figuring things out for yourself.

At Design.org, we talk a lot about how your thoughts drive what you do (and ultimately, drive your life). What kind of thoughts do you think if you’re able to tolerate ambiguity and uncertainty?

Intolerant of ambiguity and uncertaintyTolerant of ambiguity and uncertainty
“That’s a dumb idea.”

“We could never do that.”

“That’s not worth the effort.”

“I don’t know how to do that.”

“This scares me.”
“That could work if…”

“I think we could figure that out.”

“It’s worth a try!”

“I could learn how to do that.”

“This excites me!”

How tolerating ambiguity and uncertainty helps you succeed

Now that we know what this type of tolerance is and what it looks like, the question is: how does it help you succeed? There are a few key ways.

It leads to curiosity and creativity 

Tolerance for ambiguity and uncertainty invites curiosity. If you aren’t sure about something, but you don’t judge yourself for that uncertainty, you’re more likely to start asking questions. And when you ask questions, you start to get creative as you try to come up with the answers. On the other hand, if you can’t tolerate uncertainty, there’s a higher possibility that you’ll retreat in fear. 

It opens you up to new ideas

When you’re facing a problem without a clear solution, you have to start thinking outside the box (or recreating the box entirely). You have to forget about what you already know, and start thinking about what you don’t know…yet. If you don’t panic when faced with an ambiguous problem, you’ll be able to think of new ideas and see things from a different perspective. If you can’t take the uncertainty, you’ll feel paralyzed.

It makes it easier to work with others

Uncertainty humbles you. It makes you willing to listen to other people. And that willingness to listen is going to improve any relationship you’re in, be it professional or personal. Plus, when you’re willing to work with others and listen to their ideas, you have that much more brainpower you can apply to solving a problem. 

It empowers you to accept challenges

As in the story with the journalist, tolerating ambiguity and uncertainty empowers you to accept challenges that would otherwise inspire a more negative reaction. If you’re willing to sit in uncertainty, you’re okay with not knowing the answer, which means you’re okay with trying something you’ve never tried before. A challenge suddenly feels less like a problem without an answer, and more like a problem with an answer that’s up to you to find.  

It gives you a positive attitude toward risk taking

A person who shies away from ambiguity and uncertainty is unlikely to take risks. They want the sure thing, the solid answer, the tried-and-true. Risk is uncertain, and if you can’t tolerate uncertainty, you probably can’t tolerate risk, either. The problem is that without the risk, you can’t get the reward. Risks help you grow, inspire creativity, and build self-confidence.

Life is often ambiguous and uncertain. Things are rarely black and white. But why does that have to be a bad thing? Why can’t we embrace all the shades of gray? We need to learn to not only tolerate uncertainty, but to use it to inspire creative thinking and propel us forward. 

Don’t let uncertainty stop you from thinking, creating, and growing. Leverage it. Put it to work for you. Tolerating ambiguity and uncertainty can and will help you succeed. It’s a powerful tool that can help you “create happy,” but only if you use it. 

Find creativity, believe in yourself, and create happiness.

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