Career & Jobs

The Future Is Uncertain: 5 Ways To Embrace Ambiguity

Predicting the future has become big business and futurists who claim to know what’s coming are in high demand. People tend to be captivated by news stories about what to expect or proclamations about new directions. But life is necessarily ambiguous and just when we think we have a clue about what’s next, things shift again.

This constant flux can be exhausting and exacerbating. Interestingly however, people who can deal with uncertainty, assess situations, improvise and take positive action will be in demand in the future of work. As the world becomes more uncertain, people who can thrive with a lack of information will have an advantage. This will not mean simply tolerating ambiguity, but learning to embrace it.

Struggling with Ambiguity

Embracing ambiguity is a relatively rare capability though. In terms of brain function, people tend to avoid uncertainty and interpret danger or fear when there is a lack of clarity about the future.

A study by the American Psychological Association (APA) found 32% of people were struggling to make decisions because of uncertainty and 74% said they were experiencing stress. Topping the list of stressors were work (66%), money (61%), the economy (59%) and family responsibilities (52%). A full 53% said they were struggling with the ups and downs of the pandemic and a large percentage (26%) reported having a low level of resilience for dealing with the uncertainty.

The Desire to Stay in the Dark

Given how much as we want to know, and the extent to which we crave understanding, it is perhaps ironic that new research finds the majority of people prefer not to know their own futures.

A study of 2,000 people by the Institute for Human Development found up to 90% of people would not want to know about future negative events, and up to 70% would want to avoid knowledge of future positive events. Only 1% of people wanted to know what was coming regularly and regardless of its character.

The only topic on which people typically wanted future knowledge was the sex of an unborn child in which 63% of people wanted to know. In addition, the length of time until the future event played a role in whether people wanted to know what was coming. The further the event was in the future, the more they wanted to know about it. For example, the younger people were, the more they wanted to know when they would die. Older people were less likely to want this knowledge.  

Embracing Ambiguity

Ambiguity has increased and will continue this trend over time. The world is moving faster because of the exponential effects of technology, making predictions harder. In addition, the interrelationships among all kinds of global systems—economic, climate, social, transportation, health to name a few—make for more complexity and therefore less predictability and greater uncertainty.

Despite our propensity to want to know what’s coming, perhaps there is an opportunity to appreciate the unknown to a greater extent—and to embrace ambiguity.

  • #1 – Stay curious. In uncertain times, being curious can help you stay in the light. Ask questions, seek new information and investigate ideas which are new to you. Curiosity can be broad—as you read about a variety of subjects and peruse new material. Or it can be deep—learning as much as you can about a particular subject. Curiosity helps you stay informed, but it’s also useful to keep you motivated and interested, rather than flummoxed or overwhelmed by all you don’t know.
  • #2 – Stay engaged. If you feel out of control or over your head in terms of all that is going on around you, it can be natural to detach or remove yourself from stressful situations. This can be healthy in small doses or in the short term, but longer term, you’ll want to stay involved and engaged. You can engage with information. For example, if you don’t know what’s coming in your business, seek out thought leaders who can offer perspective. If you’re unsure how the economy or politics will affect your career prospects, read broadly on the topics. You can also engage with your people. Stay in touch with friends—especially those in different regions or industries—and ask for their opinions and perspectives. Join groups of people with common interests and share ideas about trends you’re all seeing.
  • #3 – Stay active. In a similar vein to staying engaged, also stay active. The ambiguity of our current world may mean you’re not sure how to solve expansive problems, but you can take local action. Join forces with others who share your passions and work on issues within your control and your community. In the face of uncertainty, positive action in incremental steps can keep you motivated and keep you learning.
  • #4 – Balance patience and action. Sometimes, ambiguity can be so stressful that people rush to decisions or premature action. But for the best decisions, you’ll need to stay patient so you can take action at the best times. If you can’t stand waiting for feedback about the job you really want, you could risk taking the job which is your second choice—just to reduce the tension of waiting. Or if you rush to finish the report before you have the full breadth of customer feedback, you could risk making an incorrect recommendation. On the other hand, you’ll need to balance the need for action—and set target timeframes for decisions. This will help you avoid a state of stagnancy or inaction. Be patient, but also be smart about when you must make decisions.
  • #5 – Be honest with yourself. Fascinating research by Ruhr-University Bochum found people tend to deceive themselves regularly. They do this to preserve their ego and to reduce anxiety. People tend to deceive themselves by “reorganizing beliefs” (for example, “I performed poorly on the project, but it wasn’t important anyway or the expectations were unclear”). They also tend to deceive themselves by selecting only the facts that agree with their beliefs or avoiding situations where they will be exposed to facts with which they disagree. People also reject facts by questioning the credibility of the source. In the face of uncertainty, you’ll need to resist these cognitive biases and be honest with yourself so you can respond effectively. If your job is in jeopardy, it’s better to know, so you can begin looking for something else. If your project at work is about to be cancelled, grasping the details can help you build your readiness for the next assignment. Face into all kinds of information so you’re aware and clear with yourself about circumstances which will require your response.

Ambiguity can be outside of your control or within your control. You don’t know what’s going to happen next with the coronavirus and its variants and you don’t know what’s coming next in terms of the global economy. On the other hand, the uncertainty associated with your plans to resign and look for a new job is something you can reduce by learning about job markets, building your marketable skills and networking your way to your next position. Whether uncertainties are within your control or outside of it, you can take action to reduce the ambiguity and also be patient with yourself and the situation, knowing you won’t know everything.

A Word on Stress

It’s also important to mention how important it is that you manage stress. Facing uncertainty can be stressful and the anxiety can in turn, create a negative loop where you become even more uncomfortable with all you don’t know or can’t control. The APA study found 59% of people had experienced behavior changes because of stress—from avoiding social situations and procrastinating to altering their eating or exercise habits for the worse.

Try to manage the stress you face using all the classic approaches (breathing deeply, using positive self-talk, seeking supportive people and the like). If you don’t know when your children will be back to school, stay calm and keep using the methods you’ve used successfully in the past to balance work and parenting time. If you’re unsure of the financial health of your business in the face of changing market conditions, remind yourself you’ll get through it and use stress reduction approaches taking one day at a time. Managing your anxiety won’t reduce ambiguity, but it can reduce the negative effects of uncertainty.

In Sum

Whether your uncertainty is within your control or not, you can learn to embrace ambiguity. After all, new developments and innovation happen at the edges—before the landscape is clear. And the ability to embrace ambiguity it is certainly a skill you’ll need in order to thrive in the future.


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