5 Ways to Move Forward When Facing Ambiguity

Ambiguity is an (inevitable) part of our everyday life, causing many of us stress, distress and uncertainty. Instead of being paralyzed by fear, here are 5 ways to instantly embrace the unknown and move forward with certainty.


John* was overwhelmed by all of the ambiguity he faced at work. The pace of work moved far too quickly and he was somehow expected to know the answers to the complex problems his employees and his boss brought to him.

The problem was, he didn’t know the answers.

Anxiety over how to deal with all the ambiguity, all of the uncertainty, all of the risks of making wrong decisions led him to feel permanently stressed out. That’s why he came to see me.

What Does Ambiguity Do To Our Brains?

Ambiguity and uncertainty have negative effects on our thinking because they set off threat detection in our brain. As humans, our basic animal instinct is to keep our bodies safe and alive at all costs. Our brain does not differentiate between fear of physical harm and fear of psychological harm so your colleague’s harsh words in a meeting can feel equally as threatening as being chased by lion in the Sahara.

When your brain and body put serious efforts into fighting off this “threat”, the blood flow to your rational, creative, higher-level thinking parts of your brain is significantly reduced. In other words, you physically won’t have access to exactly the parts of your brain that you need in order to be agile, creative, and flexible.

The fear often paralyzes brilliant leaders like John from making risky (ie, innovative) decisions.

5 ways to move forward when facing ambiguity.  

That’s why mastering ambiguity is all about overcoming the threats you perceive and, instead, thinking of them as opportunities to use your creative brain.

Here are 5 practical tips designed to help you embrace the unknown and thrive in ambiguity:

  1. Trust that you can handle any challenge that comes your way.

    Think of your life’s absolute worst moments: the death of a loved one, a divorce, being fired, that really embarrassing sweater you wore in high school yearbook pictures. You survived the worst. Maybe it wasn’t an ideal outcome, maybe you suffered a lot, but ultimately – you’re here and you got through it. Choose to trust that you can also handle whatever challenge it is you are facing today, especially since all the evidence from your entire life points to the fact that you truly can.

  2. Get rid of needing to be right.

    You cannot and will not be “right” in the world of ambiguity. The sooner you can let go of indecision due to not being certain you have the “right” or “best” answer, the better. Don’t let perfection be the enemy of great and don’t let being right get in the way of getting it right. Be comfortable that doing something “wrong” is simply a way of figuring out the path to “right”. Have a conversation with your boss or team to explain to them you are focused on the long-term results of getting it right – it will have them feeling more accepting of your “mistakes” and will allow them the freedom to fail forward with you.

  3. Connect to a bigger purpose.

    When you’re worried about yourself – your reputation, your bonus, your promotion – it’s easy to be scared of making a misstep. Ego is often called “the enemy” because it’s usually what causes the psychological threat you’re feeling. To step out of ego, find your bigger purpose by articulating how you would like to see the world look in the future and / or what impact you want to have on the world. Then remind yourself of how your work directly (positively) makes a difference in creating the different future you see. John was customer-obsessed and printed out end users’ thankful comments that described how their lives were made better by the product. He hung them across his office to always be reminded of his greater purpose, especially when facing a tough day at the office.

  4. Don’t get stuck living in “what is”.

    It’s been working for us is never a reason for you to continue using stale working processes and products. Ask Kodak, Polaroid, Sony, taxi companies, or hotel chains if you’re not sure what I mean. The truth is, disruption will be happening at an accelerated pace and big companies need to be willing to cannibalize on their current sales in order to prepare for their future sales. Instead of sticking with defending “what is”, start asking questions about “what if”. What if we re-imagined the purchasing process? What if we let customers customize their orders?

  5. Be an adventurer.

    Most of us don’t get enough time to “play” as adults, let alone while we’re at our serious day jobs. But why not? Taking on the persona of an adventurer, an explorer, or a curious learner can help you tap into new thoughts and ideas that would have been hidden away when you’re wearing your “have to hit the numbers” hat. When you give yourself permission to be a person who asks questions instead of an expert who always provides answers, you shift your brain to be open to discovering new worlds. Curiosity is what leads us to innovation, knowledge is what helps us bring it to life. Don’t lead with your knowledge, lead with your curiosity.

From Ambiguity to Clarity

When facing ambiguity, don’t look for certainty; instead, look for clarity.  If the only certainty in life is change, then the only certainty in ambiguity is that it will only become clearer with action. Ambiguity requires questioning, thinking, and acting to bring about more clarity and answers. Remember: it’s okay to get it wrong on the path to getting it right.

Just ask John. Once he tapped into ambiguity as a source of creative possibility, he designed a new product that was approved all the way up the hierarchy and is launching in 2019.



*John is not my client’s real name.

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