The Odd and Surprising Advantages of Tolerance for Ambiguity

There’s a big leap from where it all starts and where—hair down, pants off—it finishes. Therein lie the advantages of tolerance for ambiguity.

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I once thought there were no advantages of tolerance for ambiguity. Not until I took an introductory course on anthropology. Ethnography 101, or something to that end. On day one, the professor asked each of us our favorite words, and I remember (despite the many collegiate memories I have trouble recalling) my word:


Who knows why I chose that particular word on that particular grey Bloomington-Normal Monday? Maybe I’d read it somewhere and the word just stuck, as certain words tend to do. Maybe it was an odd early harbinger of my meandering pursuit of a career in writing.

Point is, ambiguity has always stayed with me.

Fast forward a decade to my now defunct in-house marketing role. In the first three months of 2018, I wrote more than fifty blog posts. I wrote website copy, customer stories, and email subject lines. At one point I scripted a short Star Wars-style video in which we vilified a competitor’s CEO by casting him as Darth Vader. That during the day before going home to do it again, quietly a steadily building my freelance content writing business on the side.

At home, or in the freelance world, one thing remains constant: I don’t always have complete detail. Context is lacking, the creative brief is thin. The answers to my questions aren’t terribly clear. Still, I have to write it anyway.

Hello, Ambiguity.

And there’s this strange thing that happens, a small epiphany of sorts: I remind myself that ambiguity can be a good problem to have—that there are advantages of tolerance for ambiguity. It tends to come when you’re in motion—when you’re learning, trying, leveling up. It’s one of a writer’s best friends, frankly, a persistent energy that forces us to ask the right questions.

Should I be writing something else? 

Is this a prudent business decision? 

How do I stack up to my peers?

It’s that feeling that comes with seeking answers on our own and, well, figuring it out. Failing a bit. Ambiguity can be a multiplier in the positive or negative direction. The thing that spurns us on. And it makes it that much easier to focus in and deliver when things do, in fact, crystallize. When things are clicking and business is humming along. The words are coming with ease. The troughs are turning peak.

This, to me, is why a healthy tolerance for ambiguity is so valuable.

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