Why Leaving The Familiar And Embracing Ambiguity Is Good For Your Creativity

We human beings love to know what we’re doing. And why shouldn’t we? We are comforted by following clear road maps, by going directly from point A to point B, and from having unambiguous answers at the end of every journey. But what happens when there are no clear answers? Well, aside from a certain amount of fear and frustration, there is also a great deal of benefit, especially as it concerns a deeper relationship with our own creativity. Ambiguity is by its very nature, what pushes us beyond what we already know and believe. It requires the kind of mental effort that can make relationships between seemingly disparate ideas suddenly evident. As a musician and songwriter I have a choice each time I sit down to write a piece of music. I can proceed from a previously known set of chord changes — for example, I can base my new song on things I’ve heard before, such as a standard 1-4-5 blues progression (which by the way, is a perfectly acceptable choice) — or I can proceed from a set of chords that I’ve never used before. In success, the first choice yields a result that pleases a listener based on its familiarity. The second choice however, the one that dips into ambiguity, will please a listener based on the adventurousness of its unfamiliarity.

That second choice, again, born out of ambiguity, leads me into chordal groupings that due to their novelty require a greater level of effort and concentration on my part.  And here’s the critical thing. The increased effort and concentration also helps to insure that the music I write will sound different from what I’ve ever done before! My dive into the newness of ambiguity brings newness into my music. While I may struggle with ambiguity, that struggle demands that I stay alert and am constantly improvising. By allowing myself to work inside ambiguity I prevent myself from falling back on musical ideas that are already well known to me. I will, for a time at least, be floundering—lost at sea as it were. And it’s in ‘getting lost’ that I will call upon greater reserves of mental awareness in order to make a successful song out of my map-less musical meanderings.

The beauty of ambiguity is that is throws us out of what neuroscientists call the Default Mode Network. This is the part of the brain that kicks in when you’re trying to empathize with someone, or get a bead on what they’re thinking. It’s also the part of the brain that relies on past experiences to make judgments about the present. In that sense, it’s not particularly ‘creative.’ The benefit of the Default Mode Network is that it allows us to be economical with our mental energy; it’s almost like being on autopilot. If you had to constantly rename everything you saw, or relearn what was dangerous or beneficial on a minute-to minute basis, you’d be using way too much brainpower. This is why, when you’re walking through the fields, you only notice the snake and not the grass. We tend to take the grass for granted, and as such, it often completely escapes our attention as we’re moving through the field. The mind only needs to know what will save us or kill us; it can largely ignore the rest. In that sense, the Default Mode Network is invaluable.

But also picture the Default Mode Network as a truck that goes back and forth over that same field, leaving gaping ruts. While those ruts might keep a driver on track, they also impede him from exploring new pathways. Staying on the same path year after year is antithetical to creativity. When there’s too much control by the Default Mode Network, which happens as we age and gain a larger storehouse of life experiences, it becomes much more difficult to look at the world as a place of mystery —and it is ‘mystery’ from which all creativity derivers.

Whenever we are looking to innovate, whether it’s through the arts, business, or entrepreneurship, the ambiguity we so often avoid might in fact, be the very thing we should be looking to dive directly into. The ‘familiar’ is safe… or so it seems. But consistently drawing within the lines and staying with the “tried and true” is often the least safe choice for anyone looking to expand their business. Given the need to cope with the demands of rapid change and constant growth, a better bet lies in having the courage and wisdom to plunge into the murky depths of ambiguity more often. It is there that we push ourselves, and stretch our ideas beyond their normal size and shape.

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