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No Right Answers

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I recently came across a fantastic "writing advice" post by Chuck Wendig. He took quite a few traditional writing advice pillars and basically knocked them down. What he was saying is that there are no rules that cannot be broken. In fact, he was saying that there are no rules at all, other than 'finish what you're writing'. I'm guessing that 'use understandable language' is a pretty basic one, too.

My partner is a start-up person. He was involved with a start-up accelerator, and he told me they dedicated three full days to meeting with people, pitching the idea to them, and getting feedback. It means you pitch your idea to thirty or so people. Why thirty and not three? Because if you get feedback from thirty different people, you will, at some point, encounter contradictory advice. Someone will tell you that you should do X, and someone else would tell you that you should absolutely not do X.

It works with parenting advice, too, in case you're curious. For instance, if you google baby sleep advice and you read enough, you'll find that expert Y tells you to let the baby fall asleep by herself and expert Z tells you never leave the baby alone. It's the same for every parenting advice you can think of. There are a few basic rules (don't shake the baby), and the rest is pretty much guesswork. In my previous blog, Developmental Mommy, I tried to answer some of the parenting questions from a scientific point of view. Guess what. The scientists don't know either. If you read enough academic paper, you will find competing theories.

What does it mean? For me, it means two things. First, there are no right answers. No one has the answers, and I would be wary of people who say they have the answers. Usually, that answer costs 9.99. In other words, people who tell you they have the right answers often have an agenda. Which is fine, by the way; everyone has an agenda. You just have to be aware of it, is all.

The second thing it means is that people have a strong need to have the right answer. We need to be sure. Some of us need it more than others. There's a trait called "ambiguity tolerance" (or sometimes "ambiguity aversion"): it's how much you are willing to put up with ambiguous situations. This very new article talks about the difference between risk, which is a known cost that could happen, and ambiguity, which is an unknown cost that could happen. I find it interesting that people hate uncertainty considering there is so much we don't know. I would think that realising there's so much we don't know would create a higher tolerance for ambiguity. Or maybe if you're willing to accept that the world is ambiguous whether we like it or not, you are also willing to admit that there's a lot you don't know.

I'm interested as a writer in this need for certainty and the right answers. We can look at quite a lot of human history through this lens. Religion, for instance, developed because people needed someone to tell them what the right answers were. God is handy that way. And we've all seen what happens when both sides are utterly convinced they have the correct answer, and that the other side is wrong. As Kathryn Schulz says, we tell ourselves stories to figure out what's going on in the world. It's the source of our creativity. But we have to accept that sometimes these stories can be wrong.


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