The Power of Standing in Ambiguity

2201325828_b5db7e66fe_b I’ve known Mary Fowler for years. Each time I see her, however, she always surprises me. But first, let me introduce you to Mary Fowler, author, educational consultant, and professional staff development coach. She is one of the first authors to write about ADHD and the first to give a mother’s perspective. Mary continues to write on this and related subjects for parents and educators.

At a recent lunch, she began to talk about ambiguity and I knew that I wanted to explore this topic more with her. In Riding the Current, I have a chapter on ambiguity and the remarkable lessons that can be learned as we allow ourselves to stand in the midst of it. Her story and advice about ambiguity are insightful to anyone who finds they are struggling in this most enigmatic place.

Mary began by saying, “Ambiguity used to be terrifying to me. I didn’t like uncertainty. I was very goal directed and hoped I could find a way to control the outcome of things. No, I wasn’t obsessive if things weren’t going according to plan, but I did get anxious when I couldn’t see the goal being met.” Mary then related how she learned to handle and then embrace ambiguity after a serious personal trauma in her life. I asked her how a person might become comfortable with ambiguity. She gives us four things to do.

1. “Quiet your biology”—your mind, body, spirit through practices like yoga. Mary notes that mind is always trying to make meaning of what happens in our lives. So, in trauma (or even in the discomfort of sitting in the midst of ambiguity), the mind is trying to answer the question ‘why.’ As you begin to quiet your biology, you and your mind will begin to work better.

2. Read widely. Mary reads about neuro-science, spirituality, trauma, PTSD, business, change management, education, and more. She goes to conferences purposefully to hear multiple perspectives and attends trainings to learn healing techniques from many disciplines. She has learned that the more you explore beyond your areas of expertise and comfort, the less you will need to be tied to specific answers. You will naturally become flexible and open to new ideas and possibilities.

3. Write a lot.  Mary finds her pen either clears her ambiguity or it becomes more manageable once it’s on the paper in black and white. I’ve often talked about the value of writing in learning. I sometimes think it is one of the most powerful ways to learn as it requires that you fully articulate your thoughts.

4. Spend time in nature. Mary said, “Nature is never still and always moving in cycles. Once I fully saw and understood the natural order, I realized that we are always in a state of ‘ing.’” What a beautiful expression for understanding that when we feel confused by ambiguity, even those moments are fleeting. Walk in the woods or on the beach. Sit in the garden. See the slight changes in the leaves over weeks, how the sun rises in the sky as the season moves to summer, how the sounds of the birds change in spring, how clouds continuously shift and move and never cling to one form for long. Lean into ambiguity and it will teach you.

Photo by David Midgley