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Creativity: A Tolerance for Ambiguity

creativity, ambiguity

In order to live effectively, humans must learn to activate their creativity. Creativity is necessary to support humankind’s success on the planet and promote the advancement of civilization. Also, global society faces complex problems that can only be solved by tapping creative capabilities.

As individuals pursue their goals of finding creative solutions to problems, they encounter questions that need to be answered before they can complete their work. The questions may involve fundamentals that have a large impact on the effort or may be details that enhance understanding of a problem and its solution. The questions may involve the “who, what, where, when, or how” of any situation. Potentially, answers to questions may also require further thought that will clarify which answer (from a potential array of choices) will yield the most creative outcome. The point is that questions must be successfully and fully answered in order for the creative work to proceed successfully.

Many individuals, however, don’t like to be stalled in their work. They want answers right away. They want to make decisions so that work can proceed. This impatience is not only driven by a desire to make progress on a project, but also because the feelings generated by “not knowing the answer” can promote discomfort and stress that can be difficult to tolerate. While not a discernible physical pain, the uneasiness of not knowing can be mentally taxing. This oppressive feeling can encourage individuals to make decisions without full information or consideration of all elements of the information.

Furnham and Ribchester (1995) describe a person’s ability to accept uncertainty as ambiguity tolerance. They discuss ambiguity tolerance in terms of the way an individual (or group) perceives, processes, and deals with information that is ambiguous, unfamiliar, complex, or incongruent. A person with low tolerance for ambiguity experiences stress, reacts prematurely, and avoids situations that involve ambiguous stimuli. Those with a high tolerance for ambiguity find such situations desirable and challenging.

If seeking to be creative, it is necessary to learn to accept the uneasy feeling of ambiguity where questions don’t have obvious answers. Having a tolerance for ambiguity is necessary in creative work because it is only when important questions about a situation are answered that a full and uncensored range of potential problem solutions can surface and be evaluated.

Not only is it essential to have correct answers, but also it is important in the creative process to allow the best alternative to emerge from an array of possibilities. Being tolerant of ambiguity can permit individuals to more fully investigate alternatives that can lead to a creative response and can discourage adopting solutions that reflect only incremental improvement. This is important because decisions that offer only incremental improvement are only adequate and do not promote truly creative outcomes. In effect, passable, satisfactory, or tolerable solutions represent the antithesis of creativity. However, if an individual is willing to trust the process and tolerate ambiguity, the disorder that causes personal discomfort will gradually transform to order as the best ideas are understood and implemented.

The process of finding creative answers can be messy in the sense that initial work may often need to advance without the ability to establish mental order. Indeed, the whole process may initially seem disordered, unpredictable, or even muddled. However, when quick decisions are taken to reduce or remove the uneasiness of ambiguity, the result may be suboptimal. Creative individuals deliberately tolerate ambiguity by maintaining an openness in the face of confusing, contradictory, or vague information knowing that the initial chaos will eventually be relieved and order will be established.

The key to tolerating ambiguity is to accept that answers to a problem may be elusive in the present, but that further study and analysis will likely bring forward creative solutions. In effect, this developmental phase is part of the creative process—a phase that needs to be embraced.

Furnham, A., & Ribchester, T. (1995). Tolerance of ambiguity: A review of the concept, its measurement and applications. Current Psychology, 14(3), 179-199.

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