An illuminating look at the surprising upside of ambiguity—and how, properly harnessed, it can inspire learning, creativity, even empathy
Life today feels more overwhelming and chaotic than ever. Whether it’s a confounding work problem or a faltering relationship or an unclear medical diagnosis, we face constant uncertainty. And we’re continually bombarded with information, much of it contradictory.
Managing ambiguity—in our jobs, our relationships, and daily lives—is quickly becoming an essential skill. Yet most of us don’t know where to begin.
As Jamie Holmes shows in Nonsense, being confused is unpleasant, so we tend to shutter our minds as we grasp for meaning and stability, especially in stressful circumstances. We’re hard-wired to resolve contradictions quickly and extinguish anomalies. This can be useful, of course. When a tiger is chasing you, you can’t be indecisive. But as Nonsense reveals, our need for closure has its own dangers. It makes us stick to our first answer, which is not always the best, and it makes us search for meaning in the wrong places. When we latch onto fast and easy truths, we lose a vital opportunity to learn something new, solve a hard problem, or see the world from another perspective.
In other words, confusion—that uncomfortable mental place—has a hidden upside. We just need to know how to use it. This lively and original book points the way.

Over the last few years, new insights from social psychology and cognitive science have deepened our understanding of the role of ambiguity in our lives and Holmes brings this research together for the first time, showing how we can use uncertainty to our advantage. Filled with illuminating stories—from spy games and doomsday cults to Absolut Vodka’s ad campaign and the creation of Mad Libs—Nonsense promises to transform the way we conduct business, educate our children, and make decisions.
In an increasingly unpredictable, complex world, it turns out that what matters most isn’t IQ, willpower, or confidence in what we know. It’s how we deal with what we don’t understand.
"Holmes... debuts with a provocative analysis of the roots of uncertainty... The author's bright anecdotes and wide-ranging research stories are certain to please many readers."
Kirkus Reviews

"This isn't really about 'nonsense,' as in silliness, but about ambiguity—when it's helpful, when it's not; and how people react to it for good or ill... The many fans of the work of Malcolm Gladwell... will enjoy this readable and thought-provoking work."
Library Journal (starred)

"By clearly staking out his thesis and exploring the topic with a dash of mischief, Holmes convincingly demonstrates that stressful situations can cause us to cling more steadfastly to our beliefs and discard unwelcome information, but he also offers a primer on how to combat these natural tendencies. While life is full of nonsense, managing our response to uncertainty makes all the sense in the world."

"An extremely useful primer for anyone who wants to better understand the complicated ways ambiguity affects human decision-making."
—New York Magazine

"Holmes is a fine writer and a clear thinker who leads us through the uses of confusion in art, business, medicine, engineering, police work and family life... If we want people to be prepared for the work of life and of living together, we should encourage lessons in the art of skepticism."
—Washington Post

"If you're hard-wired to know and want to get more comfortable not knowing, this book will guide you down that long, dark hall."
Charlotte Observer

“Uncomfortable with ambiguity? Maybe you shouldn’t be. In this energetic, tale-filled, fascinating tour of a broad horizon, Jamie Holmes shows that people often prosper when and because they are uncertain. A persuasive argument, but one thing is clear: You’ll learn a lot from this book.”
Cass R. Sunstein, professor, Harvard University, and coauthor of Nudge
“Jamie Holmes has written a refreshing, lively book sparkling with insights and entertaining stories that illustrate how the mind deals with ambiguity. And he makes the case well that how we manage ambiguity both as individuals and as a species is critical to our future success.”
Peter Bergen, author of Manhunt: The Ten-Year Search for Bin Laden from 9/11 to Abbottabad 
“How do we make sense of the nonsensical? Extract meaning from endless ambiguity? In Nonsense, Jamie Holmes takes us on an engrossing journey into the mind’s ability to process the murky world around us. From women’s hemlines to Nazi spies, Henri Matisse to Anton Chekhov, Holmes is an entertaining guide into the vagaries of our comprehension of reality—and the power we can derive from nonsense, if only we give it a chance.”
Maria Konnikova, author of Mastermind: How to Think Like Sherlock Holmes
“A book of astonishing stories and deep insights into how people deal with ambiguity, a subject that has troubled human beings forever, and never mattered more than it does now.”
Peter Beinart, associate professor, CUNY, columnist for The Atlantic and Haaretz