Tolerance of Ambiguity

Cultural and societal myths are the enemy of tolerance of ambiguity. They are strange animals. They linger like the taste of last night’s liquor. Despite the importuning of our rational mind, that part of us that knows they are myths, and nonsense too, they tenaciously remain and in no small way shape the pattern of our lives. By and large they operate at an unconscious level.

A thought gains currency and begins to command support. Take the example ‘all accountants are fraudsters’. Clearly an exaggeration and a generalisation. Now what happens if you buy into this belief? Well, for starters when you need to sort out your financial affairs chances are you’ll end up hiring an accountant whose ethics are somewhat on the loose side. Not because all accounts are corrupt as the statement implies, but because your belief has drawn that kind of person to you.

Your limiting belief about accountants has been proven right, and results in you either shunning them altogether, or actually getting stung. Moreover, if you’re setting out in life, or seeking to change careers, are you likely to opt for accountancy? Don’t think so. Your thinking has strait-jacketed you here too.

Of course people who cling to generalisations are only too happy to point out any evidence that supports their view. They don’t realise that we create the evidence to validate our beliefs, every time.

How it works

Myths get passed around, within families, communities; they are part of the milieu of old wives’ tales, and as such have a linguistic component. What we think about, and the language we use to think about it, interacts at a very subtle level.

There are myths about how we feel we ought to dress. If you like to wear jeans and a t-shirt some may form an opinion of you based on that. You look scruffy so you’re obviously a layabout! You, on the other hand, may hold the view that beauty is only skin deep, and those who follow sartorial and cosmetic interests are vain and somewhat shallow. Bias works both ways, and we are often quite unconscious of it.

Is saving money important to you, putting something aside for the rainy day, even at the risk of appearing a spoilsport? Or is spending with gusto seen as a well-deserved reward for working hard?

Some see meanness where others see thrift.

Tipping in restaurants can be another area. Some are all in favour of it, arguing it’s a benefit to poorly paid workers. Others see it as treating people as minions and demonstrating power and largess. We get to decide how much another individual is worth.

If you can understand both sides, not just in an intellectual way that allows you to argue out of both sides of your mouth at the same time, but actually see the value in the opposing statements, without having to agree with either, then you have what is known as a high level of ambiguity tolerance.

“The measure of an educated person is one who can entertain a thought without accepting it.”

Thought and action find common ground

An inability to see cross cultural references can make us adopt these myths quicker. Examples I hear all the time are

  • I can’t be happy until I meet the right person.
  • I need to have money before I can fulfil my dream.
  • No one from this town ever made it so neither can I.
  • I failed before therefore I’m going to fail again.
  • Someone else is richer, smarter, went to a better school than me, therefore will be more successful.

People who try to mitigate uncertainty latch on to these societal memes. It gives them a feeling of safety. Now understand that safety is a good thing, bottom line we all seek security in some form. But the very thing they seek, and how they view it, the linguistic appellations they built around safety, is what’s preventing them from breaking free of their self-imposed constraints.

The starving artist

The myth of the starving artist is one of the prevailing motifs of our time. Who told anyone they must ‘suffer for their art’? No one. It’s really a combination of believing people don’t like you, and that your work isn’t good enough. It’s buying into the myth again. By mistaking the word for the thing, and believing both to be real, confusion arises between notions of ‘artist’, ‘selling out’, ‘money’ and ‘integrity’. Somewhere in the mix may be the perverse predilection for martyrdom. Now all this is not to be disingenuous to those who really see any commercialisation of their work as a form of corruption, and in every other way do their utmost to avoid a penurious state.

Ask yourself the following:

  • Is the way I think about words holding me back in some way?
  • Have I bought into a myth which is not serving me and which I know deep down not to be true?
  • What action would I take if I didn’t believe that myth?

Then take it.

We buy into myths about individuals; like the person who dresses differently, lives beyond their means, or refuses to tip, and we buy into myths about groups. Skin colour, accent, address, all can serve to ghettoise people. When we become aware of the unconscious mythologizing and generalising going around then we can begin to change our behaviour. Get to know someone whose habits or customs differ from yours. Soon you’ll discover what you once found strange and quirky about them is the very thing that makes them endearing. It’s what gives them charm and individuality. And chances are you’ll find there’s not that much difference between you either.

Tolerance of ambiguity is a benefit to all. Seeing people through a haze of generalities will seriously curtail our natural joy and happiness.

Be tolerant. Go abit crazy. Embrace ambiguity.

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There is a voice that doesn’t use words - listen!


Reality is merely an illusion - albeit a persistent one.

Albert Einstein