A Memorable Question

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I was a member of the “job a year” club during my 20’s and 30’s.  I worked full time and part time, before kids and after kids.  Then I had a 10-year stint as a college professor, until launching out on my own eight years ago to be an independent business person.  Happily, the memories of those job interviews long ago have faded into the insignificant mists of time.

However, I do remember one question, and my answer to it, for one particular job.  (I was hired, by the way.)

The question was:  “How well do you deal with ambiguity?”

My answer:  “What exactly do you mean by that?”


In the 25 years that have passed since that interview, have become much more comfortable with ambiguity.  I’ve embraced the idea that some of the best decisions I have ever made, big or small,  I made without knowing what the outcome would be.  I’ve learned that innovation and creativity need a bit of ambiguous space to do their thing and make what they make.

I am also more comfortable with clarity, and I think I seek it more diligently and better recognize it when it appears.  Ambiguity is not an excuse for fuzzy thinking, or for dodging the truth, or avoiding something unpleasant.  Keeping things in an ambiguous state is obfuscation.  Allowing outcomes to emerge from carefully considered actions is experimental, exploratory, pioneering.

Twenty-five years ago, my ideas of success and failure were very different.  The price of failure, any failure, was too high.  When the price of failure is high, you think twice before experimenting.  You need assurances of results, of rules, of answers you can put in the bank.  The “certainty” of this approach is an illusion. I’ve had much better outcomes in recent years by allowing some space of unknowing, allowing whatever-it-is to make itself known on its own terms, instead of me jumping in to label, categorize, or file the experience with other things I already know.  To tolerate a little ambiguity requires patience.  It’s the same wisdom that doesn’t read the end of the novel first, or “cut to the chase,” or rip open the chrysalis to get the butterfly out.  You miss a lot of the juiciness in life, I think, by nailing everything down too fast.

So, I’m all for clarity:  clarity of expression, of communication, of intention, of action. Clarity that begets trust and confidence.  But sometimes it’s best to wait a bit before imposing order that is premature.  A little ambiguity can be interesting.


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