We live in an information society, meaning we get bombarded with information and stimuli constantly. Our brains have to find ways to keep up, filter, and deal with the information. But what happens when so much of what we encounter is contradictory?
Most of us don’t like being confused and we try to resolve tension and conflict as soon as possible. That means we jump to conclusions, hold on to what we already know, and close our minds to whatever contradicts what we already believe in. But by doing that, we lose out on the benefits of ambiguity.
Nonesense by Jamie Holmes
Nonsense: The Power of Not Knowing tackles the issue of dealing with uncertainty and ambiguity. It shows the power of not knowing and how this can lead to creativity for instance, to better solutions for problems or conflicts, or to diversity. Through countless stories, author Jamie Holmes shows what ambiguity does to us and how some people are better at embracing the phase of not-knowing than others. More than that, it’s also a kind of warning about our culture that places such a high value on certainty as well. Holmes’ example of overtesting by doctors was just one example of how far we can go in our desire to get definitive answers.
As someone who has a strong aversion to ambiguity and uncertainty, this book was a challenging read. It showed me the pitfalls of wanting to move out of that uncertainty as soon as possible and how to embrace the ‘messy’ aspects of life.
The biggest eye opener for me was the chapter on the Waco disaster of 1993 and the role ‘need for closure’ played in this (there’s a short test in the book by the way that will give you some insight into your need for closure). It’s too interesting a story to recap here in two sentences, but the core message is that the disaster mainly happened because of a high need for closure (meaning a low tolerance for ambiguity) of a few of the agents involved. The same was true for the infamous Yom Kippur War of 1973 in Israel by the way, where the need for closure in the military intelligence organization prevented them from expecting this attack on Israel. It shows you just how big the consequences of a low tolerance for ambiguity can be.
Aside from the fact that Nonsense is a great read because of the many stories, it’s also a book that will help shape your thinking about uncertainty and ambiguity and maybe even cause a paradigm shift. I know it has for me.