Home >Opinion >Columns >Opinion | How a confused mind can lead to personal growth and more productivity

I have met several people who are confused about what they want to do with their lives but I am yet to meet someone who feels happy about it. Confusion is, essentially, grappling with uncertain, ambiguous situations, where there is a dissonance between expectation and reality. Confusion occurs because our prior experiences—academic, professional and social—leave us unprepared to deal with new situations that are bound to come up often.

While confusion can be crippling in the short term, it is a vital tool for personal growth. It can help discover what we really want to do and make sense of the world around.

University of Notre Dame associate professor (psychology and computer science) Sidney D’Mello suggests that confusion augments learning if it is properly induced, effectively regulated and ultimately resolved. In his research, he found that students who dealt with uncertainty triggered by the contradictions scored higher on a difficult test. Given the research findings, should we intentionally confuse ourselves to strengthen our thought process and mental models?

Turns out there is a three-pronged framework to leverage confusion and make it work for us.

First, be productively confused instead of hopelessly confused. In a classroom, productive confusion occurs when the source of the confusion is closely linked to the content of the learning session. This happens when the learning ecosystem provides concrete help when students are struggling. At work, it means our confusions can be resolved with the help of peers and overall office support system.

Without guided mentorship, confusion can become debilitating and make things worse. In such situations, we need to analyse if we have the necessary tools to eventually figure things out. If even after repeated attempts, we are unable to navigate a problem-solving approach that has some probability of success, it is time to ask for help or change our operating context. Yes, in certain cases that means looking for a new job within or outside your organization.

Second, manage negative emotions when they occur. Dealing with ambiguity can take a toll on our well-being if we start taking things personally. This is, of course, easier said than done. It is worth keeping in mind that the occasional bad day is a natural by-product of dealing with complexity. We need to separate the problem at hand and our warped perspective due to the emotional roller-coaster we have just gone through. We can’t let it get to us.

Third, be willing to risk failure. While dealing with unfamiliar situations is likely to make us resilient and strengthen our decision-making faculties, it isn’t a guaranteed outcome. We need to be open to embracing the occasional failure. It is a fair price to pay for the accelerated learning it offers.

For the longest time I used to resent myself for being confused about my personal and professional life. I would compare my life to the glittering lives of peers on social media and wonder how they were all so sorted. It was only after years of thinking that I realized that envy and confusion were great equalizers: we all experience and deal with them in different shapes and forms.

My life changed for the better the day I accepted that my confusion was perhaps a step towards learning and self-discovery. I took heart from the fact that great scientists and philosophers dedicated their lives to negotiating with the spectre of confusion. Yale University professor of biomedical engineering Martin Schwartz once said that if we don’t feel stupid and confused, it means that we are not really trying.

With time, I realized that without confusion, it was impossible to reach the truth. In a way, being chronically confused made the pursuit to clarity worth it for me.

To a certain degree, I am still confused and perhaps will always be, but the difference between my former and current self is that I don’t feel that I have to deal with it alone. I have been part of several communities where young professionals have built enough trust that they can be open about their successes and failures. Over time we managed to embrace confusion as a collective.

Utkarsh Amitabh is founder of Network Capital, a global peer mentoring community and a WEF Global Shaper.

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