Let’s ring in the New Year with a little nonsense, more precisely confusion and ambiguity. Modern life is full of conflicting advice and unanswered questions which leave people with vaguely unsettled feelings. What happens when we’re uncertain? How do we make the best decision when faced with a problem with multiple solutions? Jamie Holmes has written an insightful book that tries to answer the question do you embrace ambiguity or be like me—hunch in a corner and sob quietly?
People fear uncertainty. The need to resolve anxious feelings is deeply rooted and multifaceted. It can also be dangerous, especially during periods of social, political or economic confusion. The desire for fixed solutions is so great voices in the margins are shunted aside. “Fear and uncertainty...intensify people’s appetites for absolutes.” Donald Trump gleefully mouthing a platform of wide-eyed hysteria that all Muslims are bad gels nicely with a study Holmes cites on prejudice. Prejudiced people cling to the past with rigid thinking, refuse to consider all sides, and “latch on to what is familiar, safe, simple, definite.”
Uncertainty is unpleasant, but in the classroom under the right conditions, uncertainty is a very good thing. People who are sure of themselves, rigid, and uncompromising, are neither innovative nor creative. Those qualities come from not knowing an outcome and trying alternatives. Having your child fail and not immediately jumping to the rescue is difficult for a parent, but “the best way to help students innovate is ”to move beyond standard grading measures and reward students for their willingness to experiment, tolerate failure, and take calculated risks.” Feelings of certainty should not be thought of as failure, but rather desirable and the key to innovative thinking.
According to Holmes, the positive aspects can also be applied to the business word. Successful innovation often comes after a string of failures. A satisfied person doesn’t look to the future and wonder what if? That edgy feeling keeps you on your toes. While businesses routinely examine failures, Holmes produces examples from companies such as Ducati, Zara, and Piggly Wiggly that successes should be put under the same scrutiny. “Embracing uncertainty after success means…always question the roles played by unforeseen factors.” Knowing your success is more than luck is as important as having the reasons for failure.
Heavy on the social sciences, easy on the noggin
Although heavy on the social sciences, this is a very readable book. Holmes breaks down complex issues into easily digestible pieces and offers several entertaining thought experiments to determine your level of rigid thinking. I scored in the mid-range so for my New Year’s resolution, I’ll stop sobbing, get out of that corner, and embrace a little more nonsense. On that point, I’m not ambiguous, but certain.