Embracing ambiguity: Less comfort, more life
Where will I be in five years? What will be my biggest success, or failure? What if I’m unable to land a job? These are questions from the students who worked as a tutor at my college. For our semester training, we tutor coordinators tried to put together material that would not only support their tutoring but also their personal development, which was one of the most rewarding parts of my job. We heard students asking us these questions amidst their uncertain futures, so we decided to put together a training on embracing ambiguity. Admittedly, some of my colleagues and I were still asking ourselves these very questions. When I sat in my office then, working on the training, I didn’t know that one year later I’d be living in a van as a full-time nomad. Embracing ambiguity has helped me become more flexible and less afraid to take risks.
To use ambiguity or uncertainty as a positive mindfulness tool, we first have to accept that ambiguity is uncomfortable. After all, it makes sense that routine is comfortable, and so predictability is comforting. When we talk about adventure, we are admittedly talking about embracing a certain level of ambiguity that thrills, inspires, and motivates us.
But uncertainty can feel less adventurous and more overwhelming, like swimming through a sea of endless future possibilities. For me, the ultimate uncertainty was taking my teaching career on the road to travel, which is something that I always wanted to do. In my first month of van living, the days and destinations were unpredictable. I drove for two hours to a particular campsite outside of town, only to spend the beautiful drive worrying about whether or not the spot would be taken, inaccessible because of winter conditions, or too small for the van to fit. There are stressful uncertainties that our minds sometimes can’t simply ignore. One strategy to combat this is to truthfully and logically answer these questions. What if the campsite is occupied? I will have to find somewhere else to park and camp, and I can do that with my map. If I’m without my map, I’ll have to explore without it, but only until the sun sets. Answering the “what if” scenarios can not only quell anxieties and fears but also provide a sense of control over the situation while allowing for some creative problem-solving.
Another strategy I’ve come to live by is to flip the “what if.” Most “what if” scenarios have a negative tinge. What if the campsite is occupied? What if it rains our entire hike? I’ve started to mentally flip the script so that I’m asking different questions, and answering with wonderment and adventurous spirit in mind. What if we find a campsite with a better view? What if we hike in the rain?
Admittedly, ambiguity can be scarier than possibly finding a campsite or hiking in the rain. For many of us, when we stand at a crossroads like switching careers, moving, giving up on or starting a new relationship, like my student employees, we spiral out of control in worry. To embrace ambiguity, I let myself worry for a set amount of time – the first five minutes of a hike, an entire run around the neighborhood, two minutes in the car. I meditate in this worry while I can, basking in the ambiguity, and then find another focus for my thoughts once the time is up.
When I think back to my student employees and their paths after college, I think about the importance of this skill for them as young adults entering the work world. Embracing ambiguity can lead to discomfort but can also push the boundaries of braveness, creativity, and ingenuity. One of the greatest things that these students taught me was to stop answering their questions and have them do the “what if” thinking on their own.
What “what ifs” are making you uncomfortable, and how can you embrace those ambiguities?