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Embracing Confusion


We as rational, logical adults tend to avoid confusion.  It seem like the right thing to do but if your objective is to gain clarity, resolve a conflict, come up with an innovative solution or just to be able to think through something in a critical way you need to embrace confusion.

If you’re spending time thinking about something that’s important and you aren’t comfortable being confused you will often stay in your comfort zone and rely on your past experiences to help you gain the insight or clarity that you’re seeking.  In many instances that’s perfectly reasonable.  If you’ve got deep technical experience that’s relative to the issue or if it’s a recurring situation that you’ve resolved successfully in the past  you may not need to allow yourself to learn from the confusion.  That being said in today’s fast moving marketplace very few of us are able to continue to move forward effectively by only relying on our past experience. We need to be creative, we need to innovate and we are dealing with issues that are new, and unfamiliar.

Confusion is actually a powerful and effective tool yet one many of us avoid at all costs.  Why?  It’s can be scary, it makes you uncomfortable and it requires a significant amount of mental energy to allow yourself to  remain confused long enough for it to have an impact.  We are wired for “fight or flight”, to make split second decisions that can mean the difference between surviving or being eaten by a bear.  If you can overpower your brains hard wired instinct to resolve the confusion quickly you will make more creative and innovative decisions.

When you allow yourself to be confused you become far more introspective; you gain the clarity you desire by questioning and reconciling a variety of ideas and alternatives that may feel overwhelming.  Some of the ideas or options may appear to be contradictory at first blush.  However by asking questions and being inquisitive even when you need to force yourself to do so you’ll be surprised at the innovative outcomes that are a result of embracing the confusion.

So here’s my suggestion, at some point in the next day or two take a step back when figuring out something and force yourself to allow the confusion that you are fighting to do what it is capable of.  Once you overcome the urge to rush through it you’ll realize that it is an incredible way to achieve clarity.

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Peter Winick has deep expertise in helping those with deep expertise. He is the CEO of Thought Leadership Leverage. Visit Peter on Twitter!

This Post Has 29 Comments

  1. Nice one, Peter. On this subject, I always remember what Tony Robbins had to say about it the first time I attended UPW in the early ’90s.

    Whenever someone stood up to say that they were confused about something (relating to what he was saying or how they were processing it), Tony would shout out, “Congratulations, that means you’re about to learn something!” He was right.

    As you point out, effectively dealing with confusion requires focused organized thinking and an open receptive mental state. Coincidentally, those same conditions are usually a prerequisite to the learning process. And we inevitably learn SOMETHING as a result of working our way through all sorts of confusing situations throughout our lives.

    Doug Rawady

  2. Great post Peter,
    I agree with the “fight or flight” instinct. I help people organize (and reorganize) their finances daily. I am always shocked at the fact that people make irrational, spur-of-the-moment decisions, that have a direct impact on their balance sheet. Mortgages these days carry an average balance of CDN$250,000. There are tens-of-thousands of interest dollars at stake. I welcome people’s confusion if they would just admit that “they don’t understand”. There is no reason to be ashamed.
    Jennifer Rossides
    Twitter: @jenrossides

  3. Very interesting post, Peter! I think as thought leaders, we often slip into the thinking that we have to appear as the authority and expert whenever we share our ideas and thoughts. Your post reminds us that we should be comfortable in the gray area–even embrace it! Fabulous advice. Terrific insight. Love it!

  4. This is a great article. If I may pass it on to others?

    I had made a great mistake today, “I laughed infront of a customer.”
    I also am not able to give good customer service, extreme amount of pressure.

    Thank You,
    Sanjay C Parekh
    Road Runner Motel

  5. Right approach. When we don’t know about anything we are confused. First step toward tackling any problem is to learn. When we understand the problem/issue well, confusion disappears. Intelligent post Peter. Thanks for sharing 🙂

  6. Great Job Peter!
    I agree with you-embrace confusion. In my book The Power of WHO- I tell people to “Embrace the unknown as friendly and ultimately beneficial.”
    Bob Beaudine

  7. Reading the book “Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion” by Robert Cialdini and this post ties in nicely with it. We have to learn what our inborn triggers are for certain actions and discipline ourselves to be more discretionary.

  8. If you’re spending time thinking about something that’s important and you are confused about it, and you are thinking “wow, this is a really hard problem!” it usually means that you aren’t the right person to solve that problem. That’s usually a sign that you need to get some other perspectives from people who are familiar with the problem set.

    That’s not to discount the blog entry. This is a hard thing to discuss in the abstract.

  9. “If you’re spending time thinking about something that’s important and you aren’t comfortable being confused…”

    Your helpful post reminds me of something one Professor Hendricks often told us, “you’re not ready to learn till you are sufficiently confused.”

    Many won’t allow themselves to discomfort of being sufficiently confused.

    Keep creating,

  10. Like they say. All creativity comes at the edge of confusion. The ability to be comfortable with uncomfortability sounds all zenny, but it’s key to stay in the confusion or uncomfortability as long as need be rather than jump to a bad decision

  11. What I like about confusion is that it means you have all the pieces to the puzzle and it just means you need to find out what goes where. Trust that you have got all the resources inside and YOU are the right person to solve it! Your own conclusions about a problem are often better/more appropriate than that of others. It may take more time and it is worth it.

  12. I agree. Embracing confusion is confronting challenge which is one of the best (or only) ways to grow.

  13. there are days when the suggestion to “step back” would have me walking through life backwards.

    On those days, it’s especially a good idea to follow this advice 🙂

  14. I enjoy the many vantage points of learning and confusion is, for sure, a good one to live by.

    When we live by our circumstances and we ignore our creative being, we let history repeat itself and therefore we let life live us, in the land of comfort. But when we are in our creative nature, we start to create a new world where the residuals of circumstance also build (a waste of the new creative process), but when we do not draw from that well of waste, we continue in living life (confusion)…

    Thanks, and I look forward to many more… good reads.

  15. This is in line with the thinking in Godin’s new book “Linchpin,” which is a tremendous read.

    Nice work on this article!

    Jason Glass
    Eagle, CO

  16. After 3 score years on this earth, I’ve finally learned that when I feel confused, something is sorting itself out in my unconscious. If I pay attention, I’ll get the message.

    And speaking of sitting comfortably with confusion, my doctor daughter ends her emails with this quote: “What you do not understand, treat with reverence and be patient; and what you do understand, cherish and keep”

  17. I agree about the confusion thing especially with regards to creative enterprises. When it’s an essay it’s not so painful to stay confused – it’s just the way you do things. When your emotions are involved it’s harder I find. Not that your feelings aren’t involved in writing, just that in some things they’re more involved.

  18. Hi,
    Nice article on how to deal with confusion rather than avoid it. I liked your suggestions on how to handle it like asking questions and being inquisitive. I would like to add that innovation, many times is the result of questions being asked and the answers themselves are the innovations.

  19. Well written Mr. Winick! Relates well to Jentz & Murphy’s educational approach in Phi Delta Kappan!

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