Befriending Ambiguity
6 Questions on Creative Confusion
Linda (Elle) Yaven
Communication Coach
I. personal ambiguity

At the start of the pandemic, a client asked "How do I learn to spend time by myself?"

Although the planet is full of people cherishing time alone, the reverse is also true.

1. From craving solo so much, where do you find yourself?

An upside to our new normal, if we work it, is revealing the story beneath the story. It's happening with Social Justice, Me Too, Climate Change, everywhere. The gap between what's going on, versus what we say is going 0n,  has surfaced in clear outline.

This tension applies to "up close and personal" too.

Behavioral change is our biggest global challenge. My client said their goal was to take one deep breathe a week. Whatever keeps you from quality self-connection is more obvious now, if you take note of it.

Nietzsche thought the whole furnace of inner life was humankind's best hope for the future.
- Leslie Chamberlain, Nietzsche in Turin

So my client's question was timely. So often, interior life is a mishmash of emotions we'd rather not feel, yuk stories we rather not hear ourselves tell or a reminder of stuff we'd rather avoid considering. That said, distraction has a very healthy upside, so I am not arguing against it.

Yet, accelerated lives will pull us from grounding in the best versions of ourselves.


Sometimes the painting is in charge. Sometimes I am.
- Susan Rothenberg, Artist‍

We fetishize ambiguity, while it's home base for creatives. Engaging in any inventive endeavor, you recognize going in, you will get lost. You sign up for the challenge, and freedom of it. Also true, on tough days, not so much.

I like to say my background as a painter, and hours alone in the studio, is great prep for coaching communication. Because guess who shows up when spending time solo? Rest assured, given half a chance, the cadence of your very specific personal ambiguity will. Private confusions have resonance for others, too - in interesting, or unfun ways.

The good news: ambiguity shows up with partnered with possibility. If willing, we become students of our own confusions.

It takes the grit of inner style to ride out, or allow, confusion to teach you. Yet, more than ever, humane interaction depends on this ability to self-regulate.  While quality time alone happens, well, when you are alone - in nature, the studio, your room - it is also happens in proximity to others.

I often coach those in business, who may not identify as "creatives". I've gotten to see creativity in many forms - from project management to UX design to stakeholder leadership. Self-modulation is developed during the challenges naturally arising when change is on the menu.

The painter Willem DeKooning said, when you first enter the studio, it's crowded with the voices of many others. After awhile these voices quiet down until only one or two remain. Then, with time, if you are fortunate, even you leave.

2. What words describe the quality of your time by yourself?


The distinction between learning asked and learning unasked is helpful here. Baking your first cake, learning to drum or drive are examples of the former. You foresee the outcome and won't necessarily be changed by the experience.

The gray zones of current uncertainties position us in the latter. We have been thrown into collective/ individual states of learning unasked. We didn't choose to be the learners we are now finding out we are.

Yet, well before the pandemic, learning unasked loops have been part of human experience. These present us with a choice to either design into them, or not.

Two alternate strategies with two alternate outcomes.

3. What has been opening up for you during our new normal?

Photo by Nathan Anderson

When my sister passed away too early, after awhile I recognized the difference between choosing to learn something and having learning thrust upon you. It was then I began to think of this dynamic as a "learning unasked loop”.

Like many sisters, we butted heads like the best of them. Yet, in that last phase we were done with sisterly drama. Her courage, in the face of what she knew might happen, changed me.

Betsy's passing put me in a kind of free fall. I was without recourse to our conversations, her nervy input and high standards. As I went about daily doings at work and home, I wondered when things would fall into place again.

At first, learning unasked feels so visceral - making you want to be anyplace but here. You are thrown back on yourself like nobody’s business. It gobsmacks you into the middle of a muddle without GPS.  

3. How has a "learning unasked loop" shaped your tenacity? 

III. Slow/Fast

Photo by Linda Yaven

I believe humans arrive on earth to design. A client said of her team "We are turned on by all there is to accomplish".

Working with clients, I guide people to pinpoint their specific strengths and play to them. The conundrums of achievers have appeal to me. Coaching them, and being one myself, I know urgency, drive and adrenaline are part of the terrain.

The thing is though, 24/7 acceleration is a formula for stress. My niece, a competitive mountain biker in Utah, says relaxing hastens speed.

My first gig as an educator was teaching visual organization to art and design students. Given I like minimalism. the palette for the semester was limited to black, white and gray. Telling my students, there was grumbling in the studio.

I made them a promise. By semester's close, they'd see nuances of gray not visible to them at first. Slowing down their perceptual experience, new increments of gray would appear.

My client also said her stress level went down, knowing she'd set aside time for herself through bi-weekly coaching. Time to catch her breath and self connect. Time to find out/sort through what she was thinking. Time to design strategic decisions linked to purposeful action.

Intentionally creating pauses in busy lives molts adrenaline body so subtle body can arise. Perhaps this is one reason we hear the word "mindful" so often. Or how come coaching is a billion dollar industry.

IV. Emotional Weather
The cure for anything is saltwater:
sweat, tears or the sea.
- Isaac Dinesen, Author (1885- 1962)

The music conductor Seiji Ozawa told this story about his life. As a child he knew one or two kinds of sadness. As a teen, four or five different kinds. In his fifties he recognized eight or so subtle variations. He intended to continue nuancing his emotional range into his 90’s and beyond.

Not ditching or running, it becomes - not to sound too "Cali Coachy" - a personalized alchemy to craft personal gold.  oh-so-human unknowns, are central to self design.

"Mirroring is something so many creative people do, this idea of shadow dancing –
we’re touching the exterior world, but ultimately we’re defining the contours of our own interiority.”
- Kehinde Wiley, Artist

Becoming present to where you find yourself, is front end design at its most personal.

Riding waves of uncertainty, you find authentic footing in sync with what floats your boat. The joy of agency happens by respecting your own navigation system.

Am honored to witness a range of approaches to transformation. Some people show up predisposed - arriving in a state of willingness. Others show up to sniff things out - if the vibe’s right they jump onboard. Others have a more gradual uptake - taking a sweet while to feel at home. Then, we have our skeptics, with their own special brand of kicking the tires.

No matter how, our change maker persona, hungry to test and influence the unknown, is our ally in positive change.

4. How are you being brave-by-design or curious about a confusion? 

Photo by Linda Yaven


5. What question could become a thread out of a current confusion? 

One day towards the close of her life, my sister and I were sitting in her bedroom. She told me she'd come to value “kindness” above all emotions. Coming from this no-nonsense, cut-to-the-chase gal, her words were a revelation.

Not fleeing our own ambiguity, we can become kinder witnesses of someone else's. Not automatically dismissing what  confuses us, or what we don't quite have words for yet, is personal progress. Not throwing darts at someone else, or yourself, for not having answers immediately or all the time, makes you, as one client said "Nicer to be around."

6. How do you cut yourself slack when confusion shows up?

When the pandemic first hit, a neighbor walking their dog shared they felt lost and unmoored. I thought of a friend who’d sailed from San Francisco to Tahiti with his brother. “It’s like sailing when you hit the doldrums in the Pacific”

I said.

In moments of learning unasked we puzzle through grays to emerge with alternate ways of creating light.


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