Time for another very basic topic: ambiguity versus uncertainty.

We live in a world with gradually increasing levels of uncertainty and ambiguity. Over the last few decades we've become much more comfortable with uncertainty, but still suck at dealing with ambiguity. Ambiguity is not knowing what you are looking at, as in those trick drawings that look like a rabbit one way, a duck another way. Uncertainty is not knowing what to do with what you're looking at. Unlike uncertainty, which is about missing or noisy information, ambiguity can exist even with complete, clean information. It is about interpretation and meaning, and is as such a truly creative act of seeing.

Perhaps the most important theme in breaking smart is comfort with environments that are increasingly more ambiguous and more uncertain. To be well adapted to such environments is to have an experimental attitude to life (which addresses uncertainty) and to be open to surprises and new experiences (which addresses ambiguity). The subjective feel of such adaptation is very familiar: it is play. Every child plays in roughly the same way, but every adult must figure out what it means for him or her to play. Because tolerance for uncertainty and ambiguity evolve differently for different people as they age (and perhaps have a genetic component too), making everybody's productive play zone different. 
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Ambiguity and uncertainty
1/ You've probably read a hundred versions of the argument that in the software-eaten world, you have to "learn to learn."

2/ In a world where masses of stored information are a google search away, learning has increasingly come to mean "doer skill."

3/ We even think of information processing in doer skill terms: "Google Fu" (like Kung Fu) is search skill. Telling signal from noise, and debunking lies and bullshit are also doer skills.

4/ However, there is an aspect to information processing that is not a "doing" skill but a "seeing" skill: this is ambiguity wrangling.

5/ Ambiguity is neither an information deficit issue, nor an information quality issue. You can have complete, clean information and still experience ambiguity.

6/ Ambiguity is resolved through a creative, elegant and non-unique answer to the question, "what am I looking at?" which suggests a direction for further action.

7/ To resolve ambiguity is to add meaning and interpretation to information. This is what allows you to value what you're looking at as important or unimportant.

8/ Your ambiguity tolerance is a function of the amount of (clean, complete) pre-meaning information you can stare at, and how long you can tolerate not knowing what's important about it.

9/ Ambiguity resolution is an act of imagination. What does a big box mean to a playing child? It could be a spaceship or a boat or a treasure chest. 

10/ The connection to play is deep. You feel like you're engaged in enjoyable play when your thinking has the right level of ambiguity and uncertainty FOR YOU

11/ The 2x2 above suggests what it feels like if you drift out of your play zone via too much/too little uncertainty and ambiguity.

12/ But remember, everybody has a very different ambiguity and uncertainty tolerance. What feels like a rewarding  search for meaning to me may seem like dissipation to you.

13/ The scale of things you can do is determined by your uncertainty tolerance. But the novelty of what you can do is determined by your ambiguity tolerance.

14/ High uncertainty tolerance requires you to develop analytical skills. High ambiguity tolerance requires you to develop insight skills. Here's an interesting article about the distinction. 

15/ The risk of uncertainty wrangling is being wrong. The risk of ambiguity wrangling is seeing something where there is nothing, or vice versa.

16/ Uncertainty wrangling is always some sort of "how do I get there?" problem. What mathematicians call an optimization problem. Solutions can be made more efficient.

17/ If you have perfect, noiseless information, "how do I get there" is a shortest/lowest cost path by some definition, on some sort of map.

18/ Ambiguity wrangling is always some sort of "is there a there there?" problem inspired by ghostly hints of meanings and patterns in information that rises above noise, but doesn't quite get to unambiguous meaning.

19/ You can't "optimize" for it in a traditional sense because the solution is an act of creative recognition of the novel, "I'll know when I find it."

20/ Elegance, surprises, interestingness, beauty, all contribute, but fundamentally, the meaning is something you read into the input, not something latent in it.

21/ In ambiguity resolution, you recognize your own preferences, values, and generative potential, as much as you recognize the input.

22/ Maybe you like ducks more than rabbits, and just didn't know it. Maybe you are destined for great things having to do with ducks. Ambiguity resolutions are in part Rorschach inkblot tests 

23/ You can sort of optimize for ambiguity tolerance and resolution skill by exploring, experiencing and reading widely in all sorts of domains, increasing the probability of an interesting resolution of current ambiguities.

24/ You can also sort of optimize for it by learning to enjoy being in relaxed, defocused, goal-free, lost, and passive moods. 

25/ You can increase your tolerance by feeding your curiosity. Curiosity is a trait that can grow stronger if you feed it more. 

26/ What are the rewards? That's a question only a low-ambiguity-tolerance person would ask :)

27/ You'll know when you find it, or there may be no there there for you. Either way, it's not wasted effort because there is no concept of waste in true play. 

28/ This bunnytrail goes far deeper, into philosophical questions of possibility versus necessity, free will versus determinism, individual versus collective values, and so forth.

29/ But big picture, the range of possible futures for humanity depends on our individual and collective ambiguity tolerance.

30/ Ours is an age of low ambiguity tolerance and a hunger for one determinate future for all. Resist! Increase your ambiguity tolerance. Help keep the future indeterminate!
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Check out the 20 Breaking Smart Season 1 essays for the deeper context behind this newsletter. If you're interested in bringing the Season 1 workshop to your organization, get in touch. You can follow me on Twitter @vgr
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