Thriving in our world of ambiguity

If you’ve been following the unfolding of global events in the news over the past few months then, like me, feelings of agitation and loss have probably been showing up a little more frequently in your life.

There’s little doubt that we are all living in a complex and hyper-connected world. With live streams of world news and real-time commentary only a click away, it’s plainly obvious that the emotional demands on people everywhere are rapidly changing.

Some writers have been calling it the ‘age of disorder’. But the shortcoming with viewing events in this way is that it asks us to approach them as ‘problems to be fixed’ or ‘systems to be controlled’. Ash Buchanan explains:

We live in an increasingly and profoundly disruptive world. It’s a time when people need to prepare themselves for a future where we don’t know how things will unfold. A time when intelligence and talent is no longer enough to guarantee resilience and flourishing in the years to come.

In a world where ambiguity is clearly a function of the system, burying our thinking in the problems that led us to where we are today will only exacerbate our inner-anxiety and deepen the wounds that bind us to the cycle of cynicism.

Dance with the system

The late pioneer of systems thinking, Donella Meadows, urges us not to be blinded by the illusion of control but rather to ‘dance with the system’:

The future can’t be predicted, but it can be envisioned and brought lovingly into being. Systems can’t be controlled, but they can be designed and redesigned. We can’t surge forward with certainty into a world of no surprises, but we can expect surprises and learn from them and even profit from them. We can’t impose our will upon a system. We can listen to what the system tells us, and discover how its properties and our values can work together to bring forth something much better than could ever be produced by our will alone.

Relinquishing the desire to impose our will upon the world requires us to live comfortably with a certain degree of tension. It requires us to reach for purpose in spite of ambiguity, to increase our connectedness to the world and our contributions to others within it.

Find the thread

Of course, working with purpose in an ambiguous world is taxing and vulnerable work that sometimes feels full of sharp edges. In these moments, Parker J. Palmer tells us to find and hold onto the thread that runs through our lives:

Holding on doesn’t make life any easier, but it can keep us from getting lost in the dark woods that swallow us up every now and then. Knowing we can find our way home with that thread in hand, we’re more likely to explore the darkness and learn what it has to teach us.

The metaphor of the ‘thread’ could be interchanged with the ‘beat’ when we talk about dancing with the system. When we slow down, tune in and listen for our beat, we simultaneously tune out of the white noise of cynicism and prevent ourselves from being sucked in by the problem frame of thinking. Making the beat our compass allows us to live comfortably with the tension that is created when our purpose rubs up against all the complexities and imperfections of the system.

What we need then are strategies and tools that enable us to slow down, tune into our beat on a daily basis, or whenever we feel we stray from the path.

The Benefit Mindset

The Benefit Mindset is one such guide that is emerging for people to purposefully find their way in an increasingly complex world.


In education, particularly, it is showing up as a way to help us to cut to the core of the purpose of learning. Andreas Schleicher, education director at the OECD suggests:

In the past, education was mainly about teaching people something. Now it’s about making sure individuals develop a reliable compass, and the navigation skills to find their own way in an increasingly uncertain, volatile and ambiguous world.

I would agree that now more than ever we should be teaching our young people to be everyday leaders who have and hold a vision for themselves and the world, equipped with the strategies to return to it when lost, and thrive within our systems of ambiguity.

What do you think? If you’d like to learn more, subscribe to our Benefit Mindset newsletter here.

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