Yesterday in North Carolina, we had what many University of North Carolina students and alumnae call a “Carolina Blue Sky!”
It was beautiful…sunny, warm, a bit windy and the sky was blue. I don’t think we even had a tiny cloud in the sky like the one shown in this photo. As the old saying goes. “On a clear day, you can see forever!” That is exactly how I felt!
And, before I went to sleep last night, I looked outside and could see stars everywhere. I can see that spring is coming, and the clarity was truly beautiful. Following an unusually cold winter and a great deal of rain, snow and ice, I found it comforting to know that I could truly see a beautiful, clear sky and the stars for miles and miles. It made me trust that there is a huge universe out there for us to explore and that today I would be able to write this blog post…and here I am…writing my blog post for the week!
But…I have to say, while still beautiful, on days like this photo to the right…when the fog is so thick you can feel it on your skin, I don’t experience the same type of comfort. Many people do feel safe during fog…but I don’t. I cannot see ahead, and I can’t see around me. It reminds me a great deal of the movie Cape Fear and hearing Robert DeNiro saying “Come out, come out wherever you are.”
If you have watched the film, you will know that the scenes are dark, foggy, rainy, windy and frightening. The Bowden family is kidnapped, and Robert DeNiro takes them to the Cape Fear river, and things just go from bad to worse.
So, my discomfort with fog could very well have something to do with this movie, or it could be reminiscent of the night my mom and I and six of our friends were trying to drive an hour home from Birmingham, Alabama in thick fog, and we got quite lost and had to pull over on the side of the road for help. But…at the end of the day, I don’t think I am alone on this issue. I think that many people are fearful when in fog, because…the world looks ambiguous. It is not clear…and in life, we all want lucidity!
Lucidity of course is defined as something that is easily understood, transparent or at least a clear perception. When you are in the middle of a lucid situation, there is a very clear beginning and end. A phone call, responding to e-mail, running to the grocery store for milk, getting dressed and going to an event…these are all tasks which are very clear…they have a beginning, middle and end. Done! So, of course, they are easy to do…you just start and finish.
But what about those projects, situations or risks which are ambiguous? You know…the ones that have multiple moving parts and could pull you in about 10 different directions? The ones you have never done before that feel risky and may make you look like you don’t know what you’re doing? Those are not so easy to accomplish or even begin.
As I think about ambiguity, it reminds me of the “flying trapeze” simile (or metaphor…I think a simile begins with the word ‘like’)…So, navigating through an ambiguous situation is a bit like flying on a trapeze.
Look at this picture. The trapeze artist moves from one trapeze to the next, hoping and praying she will grab her partner’s arms. During the transition, all she has to grab onto is…nothing! Just air. Now then, we all know there is a net below, but I have been told that during the transition, it is one of the most frightening feelings imaginable, and that the natural desire is to hang onto the original trapeze…or to just turn back!
Ambiguity feels a bit like this transition on the trapeze. Approaching a foggy situation, we often feel that we are in mid-air…grabbing onto nothing. It is uncomfortable and frightening. We can’t see ahead, and we don’t trust that we are going to have anything to grab onto. So, when something is ambiguous, lacking clarity with nothing to grab onto, as humans, many of have the tendency to do one of the following:
- Not start…we just make excuses about why we cannot start instead of just admitting that we’re scared as hell to begin
- Start and then stop in the middle
- Start and stop, start and stop or move forward 2 steps and back 2…like an oscillating fan or a rocking chair
- Start something brand new so that we don’t have to start the ambiguous process (this is a diversionary tactic)
- Start checking e-mail or doing mindless tasks so that we can feel like we have accomplished something
- Sitting and thinking of the thousands of things that could go wrong if we move through this ambiguous situation
- And…some people (about 18-20% max) actually take the ambiguous idea and run with it. They shift gears, act without the full picture, they handle the uncertainty and they move to completion.
And…for those of us who are sitting and checking e-mail and worrying about things that will probably never happen, someone else out there is moving through this same ambiguous situation all the way to a better relationship, the top position, a wonderful life dream, or all the way to the bank. We see their success, and we then give ourselves a quick kick in the rear. Do you know HOW MANY times I have heard someone say “I had that idea 10 years ago…they took my idea!” No…they did not take your idea…they had the same idea, and they decided to act instead of sitting around spinning about their fears.
So…here is the deal. In today’s world, we are being faced with a heavy load of ambiguity. And, the best way to move through ambiguity is to act. I recommend using a few strategies to help you get through the process. If you take even two of these strategies and work through them, you will get closer to achievement (and further along than most people):
1. Map out your entire process on a big butcher block piece of paper. By getting the big idea out of your head and onto paper, it can feel much less ambiguous.
2. Break the big challenge into multiple parts, and dedicate time to completing each part (people call this breaking your situation or project into chunks…call it whatever you want to…at the end of the day, if you try to complete everything at once, you may just get more fuzzy and overwhelmed).
3. Each time you hit a bump in the road, sit down and break apart the problem. Talk the problem through with 3 other people…ask for help!
4. Shift your thinking back to a beginner’s mind. If you think that your own past knowledge will give you your answers…think again. None of us ever know all of the answers, especially in an ambiguous situation. The answers are out there somewhere…in a book, in research, in the minds of other people, in the world, in nature. Get out of your own head and look for your answers…out there! Out there in the world!
5. Take on a new activity that you know nothing about as a side hobby, and do this in a group. Taking on a new activity is always ambiguous…you don’t know what you are doing. I even feel this way when I cook a new recipe or use a piece of technology…I worry ahead of time that I don’t know what I am doing. By taking on new activities (in front of a group is key…if you try to do this in isolation, there is a good chance you won’t do it), you can get more accustomed to ambiguity. Keep a journal during this time and make note of your progress.
6. Work with a coach who will challenge you to take risks and to help you develop a healthy view of failure. I have learned in life that people just don’t like failing. Taking on an ambiguous situation always feels risky, because a new/fuzzy/ambiguous situation can result in failure, and no one likes looking bad, being criticized or falling short on a new goal or project. That’s okay…this is a part of growth and development and going for a dream! As a matter of fact, I would venture to say that unless you are failing, you are probably not getting ahead in life. If everything is pit-pat-perfect, then you are more than likely stuck in a rut of perfectionism, and your ability to learn and grow will stop at the point of your commitment to always looking right/being perfect.
7. Take a disjointed task and organize it! In the midst of ambiguity, things can get messy and disorganized. As you are moving through a nebulous situation, you will probably stumble upon something that is completely out of whack and disjointed. Take that one task and organize it, and you will gain more clarity and direction during the process of creating order.
8. Ask yourself the question “What questions do I need to answer to minimize my risk in this new situation?” I am a big risk taker, and my decisions are sometimes great and sometimes just don’t work, because I don’t always stop to consider how to minimize my risk. But…I think this question is a good one. When the parts of a process are fuzzy, you may be resisting moving forward due to a fear of a negative financial or leadership outcome. If so, sit down with a mixed group of people (men, women, risk takers, different ages) and look at the end result and ask yourself and your trusted colleagues how you can minimize the risk and then go implement those steps. This will greatly reduce your stress level and will give you more momentum to move forward.
I hope this article has been helpful. If you are an executive or business leader who is ready to take on a big project and you are looking for someone to help provide clarity through the process, give me a call at 910-692-6118. I would love to hear from you!