Finding Peace in Ambiguity: Learning to Flourish in Life’s Gray Areas

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When I started my first job as a youth minister after graduating from Divinity School in 2014, I remember a professional acquaintance saying, “Good luck. The average amount of time that a person stays in youth ministry is two years.”


I’ve outlasted my acquaintance’s prediction (I’m still at the same church!) and while part of the reason I’ve stuck with the job stems from the meaningful nature of the work, one of my less-than-praiseworthy motivations for staying is avoidance of the job search, and particularly the interview process.

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Despite hours of preparation, I recall anxiety over the fact that I never quite knew what my interviewer would ask, or what they were looking for in a candidate. Knowing this tendency, I had the thought a year or two ago to ask a mentor of mine, who works in a position that involves frequent interviewing and hiring for various level positions, about the number-one quality that she looks for in applicants.

Her answer was quick and clear: a tolerance for ambiguity. She went on to explain how rare it is that answers are straightforward, next steps are clear, and making decisions is easy. Instead, the people with whom she works need to be not only comfortable with grey areas, but able to flourish within them.

As she described this quality, I found myself both agreeing with its value for all sorts of jobs and circumstances, and determining that it was a quality I wanted to prioritize cultivating.

Here are three simple ways I’m doing that:

I ask lots of questions and seek a variety of opinions

I imagine that most of us want to make good decisions in our personal lives and at work, but that the “right choice” isn’t always clear, and that the resulting ambiguity can be uncomfortable.

One of the easiest ways to avoid the discomfort of ambiguity is by trying to convince ourselves that there is none. There’s actually a psychological term for this tendency — confirmation bias — and it’s the propensity that people have to give more weight to, or to favor information that confirms already existing beliefs.

For instance, since becoming a mom two years ago I’ve vacillated about whether to stay at home with my kids, work half-time, or work full-time. I’ve found that when seeking advice from older moms or peers, I tend to ask for input from people doing whatever option I’m leaning towards at the time. I want to be validated in my decision instead of given further fodder for indecision.

It’s fine — and even important — to yearn for and seek affirmation, but it’s more honest to recognize that there often isn’t a single right answer to a given conundrum, and to acknowledge that we can gain valuable insight by asking questions and gathering information from people who think and act differently than we do.

On top of increasing our tolerance for ambiguity, asking questions broadens our perspective and deepens our understanding of people who make choices different from ours.

I force myself to pause

There are so many times when I want to end the discomfort of an ambiguous situation by quickly “taking care of it” (i.e. sending an email, making a decision, or voicing an opinion). I’m currently in the process of making plans for my church’s middle school and high school faith formation programs next year, and I hate the feeling of not knowing whether we’ll be meeting in person, virtually, or in some hybrid form.

It’s tempting for me to just say to my boss, “Hey, I think we should go this route and here is why,” to get myself out of the unknown and into planning mode, my much preferred state-of-being. But since I still need time to gather a variety of opinions (see above) and make a well-rounded decision, I just keep taking deep breaths and pausing, holding myself back from rushing to solve this problem quickly.

I make sure to have a full and varied life outside of work

Here’s the thing: Sometimes it’s really hard to pause, whether from making major decisions or from taking smaller actions like replying to frustrating or otherwise ambiguous communications. But, sometimes the time that it takes to pause is necessary for tempers to settle and for information to be fully shared, and having distraction from the issue at hand can be helpful in making the pause tolerable.

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For instance, just last week I received a snippy email from a parent who had misunderstood our church’s process for scheduling Sacraments this season; I wanted to reply immediately to clarify the situation and remove annoyance from my chest, but past experience has led me to know that responding in a moment of peevishness is almost never a good idea.

My full life outside of work — my family, friends, and hobbies — helped me pause because they distracted me from thinking about how I wanted to respond. If I hadn’t been busy after work with a scheduled walk with a friend, a new recipe that I wanted to try, and the page-turning novel that I could barely put down, the discomfort of ambiguity would have short-stopped my pause.

It’s hard to say when I’ll next be entering the job search, and chances are that my future employer won’t be looking for the exact same top quality as this mentor of mine. But a tolerance for ambiguity will serve me no matter where I work, and that’s why I’m working on cultivating the quality now.

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