In the crowded halls of college classes, there was so very little ambiguity. Lectures and homework and projects were routine, circumscribed, and syllabied. In fact, everything was so laid out before us that we could easily procrastinate until the week before to study for an exam. There were no pop finals, and definitely no surprise assignments. Regrettably, this did not prepare me much for real life. Because real life is actually full of surprises.
At Apple, "dealing with ambiguity" became such a stock phrase in our daily nomenclature (it was a Lominger competency), that we basically adapted to never knowing much of anything. All of our schedules could be upended by a sudden product launch. Our long-term goals and plans for the week could be suspended due to customer traffic or employee call outs. Our career navigation was more akin to sailing in the fog in unchartered waters than reaching graduated checkpoints on a typical corporate ladder. The other way we often thought of it (very optimistically, I must say), is that we were "learning something new everyday." All this ambiguity, however foreign it was at the time, prepared me well for startup life, which takes ambiguity to a deafening, almost-inundating new level.
Ambiguity and startups are two hands in a handshake; I've resolved that they've simply made a deal with one another to be married together. Everything it takes to run a successful startup: sustainability, traction, execution, focus, fundraising, and product-market fit are often all a surprise waiting to happen. Plenty of adventure to be had all around. But you don't need to live and work in a world of heightened ambiguity to recognize its presence. It hides behind the hopeful expectations of every appointment, threatens the stability of a perfectly calendared week, and erupts out of the seemingly placid oceans of our lives when we most insist on its absence. Some people find start up founders to be a bit loopy to intentionally invite more of that ambiguity into our lives.
But whenever I lift my head -- and heart -- above it all, I realize that ambiguity is not as much paralyzing as it is exhilarating. Because it is in ambiguity that dreams are hatched, hopes are nurtured, and possibilities run wild. That things don't have to stay the way they are, lives can change, people can revolt, ideas can wax viral. Ambiguity is like the oxygen in a scuba diving tank; the more you have, the more you can explore. The more ambiguity we invite into our lives, the deeper we can dive, the more dreams we can realize, and the more possibilities we can propose, encounter, and undergo.
If ambiguity is so characteristic of the human condition and life experience, how do we get better at embracing it? After eight months of branching out with my own startup, I've cultivated certain mentalities that have made it easier to welcome and usher in that oxygen in my adventure tank.
10 Ways to Help Anyone Embrace Ambiguity
1.) Spark your imagination of what could happen! If you were your own life's storyteller, how would it play out? (There's only one rule though: you have to throw in some opposition!) Every legendary Hollywood plot has its opposition and adversaries, pitting the protagonist's dreams against his fears. No great film ever made was about the "happily ever after," at least not until the credits scrolled skyward; films were always about and had always been about the intrigue of the heroic journey. So soak it in! Transform your front and center position in the plot of your very own life movie into a fountain of positive energy. Get motivated by your defeats and inspired by your triumphs. Add some zing and pep to your anticipation of what's to come. Look around; this is the world working as it should.
2.) And related to #1, love a good story. Love being its main character and the opportunity to "choose your own adventure." Every new problem has the potential of becoming an evocative subplot or an ennobling leitmotif. In actuality, everyone loves a good story; can you think of anyone who doesn't? The difficulty comes when we have to remember that our lives can be good -- even remarkable -- stories too. Remember that the story you live and sculpt can inspire and energize those around you and those who come after you. If we are to have any success in that department, we need to choose a good adventure and love the psychological roller coaster it takes us on. I recently discovered a free app (now a new favorite of mine) Everest, an iPhone app that helps you live your dreams by helping you plot out the steps to get there! So dream up!
3.) Expect the unexpected. Perhaps even be genuinely disappointed when things turn out as anticipated! Once you start expecting interruptions, delays, disruptions, disturbances, impediments, you'll be much more prepared for them. And when you know what's coming, you won't be completely blindsided by an unexpected event, which may render you unprofessional and cowardly. And when the unexpected does come, bookmark it for later! You'll have a great story to share in a future job interview or group dinner. One of my good friends Keena Walters is an incredible (and tremendously calm) event planner. She planned and hosted my 100-guest Engagement Party, and has facilitated fundraising parties for non-profits as well as weddings for half a dozen of her best friends. Each event is one to remember, emanating with elegance and showcasing logistical proficiency at every turn. The secret to her success? She says she expects at least one thing to go horribly wrong (like how the groom broke his arm the day before). And when it does, she considers it just another part of the role.
4.) Love what it takes to show ambiguity who's boss. And what it takes is faith. Faith is defined in a myriad of ways, but I've boiled it down to expecting great things in your life. Expect that great things happen to those who act on their dreams. Expect that if there be a great power in this universe (and I believe that there is), that He would reward you not just for good behavior, but also for taking charge of your life to fulfill your life mission. Expect that, in Paulo Cohelo's words, “When you really want something to happen, the whole world conspires to help you achieve it.” Expect your friends, family, and associates to be wonderful and talented. Expect people to believe in you. Expect people will follow your lead when you lead well. When we in turn genuinely believe in people, not only do we give everyone a chance to fulfill their own life missions, everyone suddenly becomes a tremendous resource in fulfilling our own life missions.
5.) Stabilize your life to give it a modicum of balance. Keep a few habits in your life consistent, scheduled throughout your day. Make them non-negotiable. Let your mind simmer down, immerse yourself in study, meditation, prayer. In many ways, the inner peace it takes to deal with ambiguity is interrelated to a form of spirituality. Learn, unlearn or relearn ways of handling conflict and stress, focusing on methods nested in wisdom and immortalized throughout the ages. Pursue a freedom from guilt, of blame, of bitterness, of tension. Make peace with others. Then make peace with yourself. I personally read from the Jewish, Christian, and Mormon canons everyday after lunch. I've formed a sanctuary around the practice, sandwiched by prayer.
6.) When you know you should do something, say, "I'll do it" immediately. Let your courage play pursuit. The unknown is probably a lot easier/simpler/friendlier than you think it is. Three weeks ago, I gave my first speech as a startup founder with little over 24 hours of notice. It was 25 minutes long. One hour of prep per minute, I thought. I'm a nervous and stuttering public speaker (I feel a kinship with Paul Graham in this way), and I would have sent my wife if she weren't homebound with multiple sicknesses. I decided in ten minutes that I would do it, and spent the rest of the day preparing for it. When I delivered it, I did so believing that the opportunity was heaven-sent and custom-made just for me. I ended up communicating serious passion to the audience; even the emcee afterward said it was an "inspiring journey." Agonizing about whether to do something you know you should but don't know you want to is half the stress of the situation. Decide right now to eradicate that anxiety in advance, and invest your leftover energy (which should then be abundant) to getting the job done.
7.) Hate its opposite. Go on strike against boredom. Wage war against stagnancy. Feel repulsed at the thought of staying the same. Become disgusted at cowardice! Strike fear in the face and let it wither before you. Of course, this won't happen overnight; play pretend, and it'll come in due time. Ambiguity comes onto the scene in two separate but related events in life: (1) unexpected interruptions and (2) the void that comes from doing something new. To deal masterfully with ambiguity, you must vanquish your tension with both.
8.) Though you may one day or already have transcended the chaos, empathize wholeheartedly with your peers, who may still be dealing with and reeling from it. Their ability (or inability) to handle disruption and unpleasant life or work changes will play a significant role in your own experiences with ambiguity, for better or for worse. Soothe their fears. Respond to any complaints with understanding, silver linings, and golden platters. (The idea is that when you truly do have it all together, you'll have the emotional wherewithal to serve your peers some inspiration.) Help them identify their opportunities within the crisis. Start today to tell them stories of your own metaphysical climb from the din and tumult. Speaking with compassion and repeating excerpts of your own life story reminds you of who you are, what you believe in, and why all you do still matters.
9.) One thing I learned from Tony Hsieh's NYTimes Bestseller Delivering Happiness is that we all function more happily when we operate with a sense of perceived control and perceived progress. Though there are always things you can't control, focusing on things you can (and controlling it as much as you can) can help a great deal. The things you can always control are your attitude, your habits, your ambition, and your willingness.
As for perceived progress, nothing is more demoralizing than the sense of backward momentum or even plateaued development. I've been using Degreed to track all the interesting articles I read, videos I watch, and gain mini-credits to add to the formal credits from my university diploma. I've always been enamored by the concept of the eternal student, but the romanticism of it all fell away when my efforts never added up to anything "official." I had always craved for some sort of certification that validated that I had made use of my time in some way. Now, with Degreed, I don't need to wait for the certification industry to catch up with my futuristic ways of knowledge accumulation in the post-university era.
10.) Lastly, celebrate. Celebrate every upswing and data set that goes up and to the right. Dance and shout and holler and sing for every battle won and challenge undertaken and even failure survived. There are simply not enough years in our lives to let any chance for a celebration get swallowed up by the tides of our vacillating existence. So, starting right now, pick out every reason you can to celebrate: achievements both big and small, skills attained or retained, opportunities down that way and over to the right. I personally think that's why blogs like ohhappyday.com are so popular. Our souls yearn for the opportunity to express joy at the things going right in our lives, and we all do it all too sporadically. And when you do celebrate, the positive vibe will resonate contagiously in your spheres of influence, making all the vicissitudes that life proffers all the more bearable.
How do you deal with ambiguity? If you have a story, share it below!