Sunday, February 14, 2010

Ambivalence & Ambiguity

"I hate to write."

"But you're blogging."

So went part of my quasi job interview earlier this week.

I absolutely hated writing as a child. I write left-handed, and started writing back in the days of fountain pens. I spend excruciating hours writing a simple thank you note because I didn't know what to say (beyond "thank you"), I couldn't spell, my hand would smudge the ink, and my father insisted that the product be perfect. I was, however, productive in filling the trashcan with failed efforts.

For years I struggled with pens, pencils, erasers, correction fluid, and typewriters. Thirty years ago, I bought an IBM Selectric with a memory for my then wife the writer (tho it was way outside our budget). It was one of those presents that was more like a loan because I was looking forward to using it myself.

When a word processor was installed in the office, I would sit next to the typist as she entered my work. Soon I was using the machine myself, despite the ridicule of my peers, e.g., "Finally found a job commensurate with your skills." Of course, in time, the shoe was on the other foot as my peers turned to me for guidance on using our first computers.

I tried and failed with speech recognition software. Then when David Pogue, the NYTs tech columnist, announced that Dragon was greatly improved, I tried it again and fell in love. (How appropriate to retell this tale on Valentine's Day.) I have been a Dragon evangelist ever since.

Yet with all these improvements in the process of writing that have removed so much of the frustration and drudgery, I still found myself not writing as much as I thought I should. It then occurred to me that some of the reluctance had more to do with potential outcomes than with process.

When I speak to you to person, I get to watch your reactions and to clarify and correct and even apologize when necessary. When I speak to you over the phone, there is a wealth of information in the timing and the tone of your replies. Writing is much more iffy. It lacks immediate feedback.

The man who was my main mentor in strategic planning was fond of saying that high tolerance for ambiguity is a key competency of creative and effective leaders. (There's a good intro to the topic at this Wikipedia article.) It's also critical for creative planning.

The science on climate change is clear: it's happening and human actions are contributing to it. What will happen 20 years from now, much less 50 or 100, is more ambiguous.

Woody Allen once noted that life is full of opportunities and obstacles. He wrote that the purpose of life was to seize the opportunities, avoid the obstacles, and still catch the 5:30 train to Long Island. May we seize the opportunities to go green, avoid the obstacles of ambivalence and ambiguity, and catch the movement to reverse the damage we've done.

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