Despite the widely held belief that standing firm in your positions is a sign of strength (the image of certainty, confidence, and success), strategically embracing ambiguity can be the secret to overcoming seemingly insurmountable obstacles. Specifically, the way we think about our circumstances and the potential future outcomes of our efforts can be greatly aided by keeping an open mind about various possibilities. Instead of relying on the certainty of having only one path to arrive at your goal, embrace the options of a network of paths that will increase your chances of arriving at your desired destination.
Anyone who uses GPS or a traffic app (or a detailed map for those old school types who like to keep their internal navigation abilities sharp) knows that an obstacle in your path does not mean the end of your journey, it merely means that your original path might not be the best route. When you are stuck in traffic and hit the “reroute” button (Is there a button? I don’t know, I’m old school.) you are most likely encouraged to see alternate routes. I’m guessing that you are not filled with regret that your original route is not the best. You just want to find the fastest route to your destination. Or so it goes in the world of traffic.
Yet in our personal and professional lives we often do the opposite. We make a goal to arrive at a particular outcome. When we fail to achieve that outcome through the means we chose, we can feel like we have failed, like we don’t have what it takes, and like we should shrink away into the shadows of obscurity. As if the choosing of the route was as important as the destination itself. So instead of putting so much time and effort into picking the best route, try to embrace some ambiguity instead.
- Explore failure: We get wrapped up in the idea that our worth and our happiness are based on our successes. Simply put, this is a lie. If you just focus on the success at the end, you miss out on how valuable all the failures are along the way. Quite literally, your failures have made you who you are today. Any success that you have achieved has been a result of you persisting through and learning from your failures. Failure is very helpful.
- Use ambiguous words: Our internal thoughts are very influential when it comes to our feelings, actions, and problem-solving abilities. Try replacing absolute sentences with more ambiguous ones. Experiment replacing absolutes (This is the only way to achieve X.) with option-producing ambiguity (This could be a way to achieve X.)
- Learn about non-traditional success stories: Read about or interview people who have achieved success in a non-traditional manner, especially if their success story is not what you think yours will be one day. Opening yourself up to different stories of success can widen your perspective, increase your creative thinking, and help you to challenge assumptions you have about what it means to be successful.
- Don’t retrace someone else’s journey: Talk to people who you admire and ask how they made important decisions in life. Focus less on the steps they took (because retracing their steps will not get you to where they are) and focus more on learning how they prioritized life events and made important decisions. Use these stories as inspiration, not a road map.
Shawn Healy, PhD