Heidi Isern

writer. thinker. whiskey drinker.

50 Shades of Ambiguity: Why the ‘Gray Zone’ is Good For You

‘Embrace Ambiguity’ is one of my design firm’s seven core values. It’s the one value I used to secretly wish we could hogtie and gag. Yes, I wanted to torture ambiguity like it tortured me — you know, draw and quarter it into four understandable chunks.

Why? Because I was a domineering mistress. AKA a control freak. There, I said it.

I liked knowing when things would be done, how they would be done and what the next steps were before I even put my shoes on.

In my book, “maybe” meant “no” and “yes” also meant “no” if there wasn’t an associated timeline attached to it.

This Type A characteristic made me highly productive. I got shit done. In fact I was given the acronym Ms. MSH (Make Shit Happen) by my friends. However, my MSH tendencies threatened my creativity and put lots of stress on both my work and personal relationships.

For example, if someone didn’t know if they wanted to grow old with me by date 5, I assumed they just “weren’t that into me.” I’d kill the relationship because I was terrified a “gray zone” during dates 6–100. The gray zone encompassed both the gray status of the relationship as well as the gray hairs I’d get from uncertainty. Nobody puts baby in the gray zone, right?

At work, I didn’t have much choice. Ambiguity was a fundamental part of the design process.

Designers didn’t just flirt with ambiguity, they invited her into their bedroom for an indefinite period of time. I sweated with nausea waiting outside, hoping that ambiguity would end her visit so that we could emerge with the “right answer” and move on with our lives.

The thing is…ambiguity is necessary for magic. If you think about a magic trick — you have no idea how it happens, when it will happen or even whatwill happen as the magician waves his wand over his hat. Most of the audience is tantalized by anticipation during a magic show. I, of course, am always the one tapping my foot, anxious for the result. Damn, had I been missing out on MAGIC all this time?

Ambiguity for type A people is really uncomfortable. However, good things aren’t always apparent right away. Ideas, decisions, and emotions are little chickens that need time to incubate, grow, and ponder multiple bread crumbs before coming out of their shell. Not everything hatches when we want it to. And half the fun (so I’ve heard) is not knowing what type of chicken will come out.

As a writer, I should know this. I start eight totally different first drafts before I choose one to refine and hit “publish.” And I never know what I’m going to write until I’m already a paragraph in, trying to make sense of doodles I made in my notebook the prior Thursday. For some reason, I could let ambiguity live in my blog writing, but I could not introduce it to other parts of my life. It was time to invite her over for a longer visit. But first I needed to understand what had been holding me back for so long.

After going through my personal history of rapid fire decision making, I realized it was because I was scared. I was scared shitless that things would not work out according to expectations and I’d be on the hook for failure. I’d kill anything that I wasn’t 100% sure about or couldn’t control. Worse, I’d try to force decisions before they were ready to be made. I may have dodged failure, but I had also thwarted magic.

Perhaps if I could get more comfortable with Mr. Failure and have a nice long chat with him over tea, I could start to entertain the idea of a relationship with Ms. Ambiguity. Magic could be our ménage à trois love child.

Many of my readers are advocates of free love, especially with failure. Onecommented on my last post saying that

“J. K. Rowling, who was the first real rags to riches story of my age, and she said that it’s imperative to fail, because if you have never failed, then you have failed by default.”

Failure is…not failing? I was instantly reminded of my father’s instruction when he taught me how to ski. “Heidi,” he said. “If you do not fall down then you are not trying hard enough.” He also told me that the most fun runs were through the trees where you couldn’t see where you were going.

If I wanted more magic in life my (like becoming a billionaire published author or a blindfolded skier) I needed failure in my repertoire and ambiguity as my assistant. Together, we’d surprise and delight the world with a variety of outcomes. Perhaps if I accepted failure as one of the okay outcomes, I’d be overjoyed when success actually happened.

Part of embracing the gray zone, after all, is knowing that we will be okay no matter what. Failure is only really ‘failure’ if we don’t learn from it and craft it into an entertaining story. So it’s time to enjoy all shades of gray. After all, magic always seems to happen in the inbetween times — dusk and dawn.

In honor of my new favorite color, I’m about to submit a short story manuscript to an impossible-to-get-into publication that will take three months to respond to me. Hello Ambiguity! I may not want you in my life forever, but um, maybe let’s date a while. I’m curious

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