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New America fellow Jamie Holmes’s illuminating look at the surprising upside of ambiguity in Nonsense

Holmes explores how, properly harnessed, ambiguity can inspire learning, creativity, and even empathy.

New America fellow Jamie Holmes’s illuminating look at the surprising upside of ambiguity in Nonsense

Nonsense: The Power of Not Knowing

Jamie Holmes
  • Imprint: Crown Publishers
  • On sale: October 13, 2015
  • Price: $27.00
  • Pages: 336
  • ISBN: 9780385348379
Contact: Rachel Rokicki
(212) 782-8455

Advance Praise for NONSENSE 

“The many fans of the work of Malcolm Gladwell (e.g., The Tipping Point; Blink) will enjoy this readable and thought-provoking work.” Library Journal, starred review 

“[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 

“Holmes, a fellow at the nonprofit New America, demonstrates how uncertainty intersects with everyday life in surprising ways, from the doctor’s exam room to the classroom…. 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.” Booklist

“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, enjoyable book sparkling with interesting insights and good stories that illustrate how the mind deals with ambiguity. And he makes the case well that how we deal with 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, and columnist for The Atlantic and Haaretz


Life today feels more overwhelming and chaotic than ever. We’re constantly bombarded with information, much of it contradictory. The twin trends of the day—globalization and the revolution in information technologies—have led to an age increasingly defined by ambiguity and uncertainty, and by the disappearance of traditional cultural, political, and financial guardrails. Managing uncertainty—in our jobs, our relationships, and our everyday lives—is fast becoming an essential skill. What should we do when we have no idea what to do?

In NONSENSE: THE POWER OF NOT KNOWING (Crown; October 13, 2015) New America fellow Jamie Holmes offers an illuminating look at the surprising upside of ambiguity—and how, properly harnessed, it can inspire learning, creativity, and even empathy. 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 ambiguity to our advantage. The book is divided into three provocative sections.

In Part One, “Making Sense,” Holmes examines ambiguity in broad strokes—showing how our minds grapple with confusion and doubt. He shows that because we find confusion unpleasant we tend to close our minds off to ideas as we grasp for meaning. We’re hardwired to resolve contradictions quickly and extinguish anomalies. In so doing, we lose the opportunity to learn something new, solve a difficult problem, or see the world from another perspective.  In Part Two, “Handling Ambiguity,” Holmes shows how we deal with uncertainty in stressful situations—from a hostage negotiation to a medical crisis—and points out the biggest pitfalls: our tendency to grasp for stability; deny contradictions; prematurely outsource a solution; and predict with overconfidence. In Part Three, “Embracing Uncertainty,” Holmes turns to creativity, demonstrating ways to uncover new ideas suppressed by our minds’ natural resolution-urge. Specifically, Holmes explains why tomorrow’s workforce needs to practice solving problems without clear answers. Moreover, he details the benefits of exposing the hidden assumptions of language and resisting narrow cultural notions of where good ideas come from.

NONSENSE is a mesmerizing book that demonstrates how in an increasingly unpredictable, complex world, what matters most is not IQ, willpower, or confidence in what we know. Rather, what matters most is how we deal with what we don’t understand.



Jamie Holmes is a Future Tense Fellow at New America and a former research coordinator at Harvard University in the department of economics. He holds an M.I.A. from Columbia’s School of International and Public Affairs, and his writing has appeared in the New York Times,, Slate, Politico, The Christian Science Monitor, New Republic, The Atlantic, Foreign Policy, and the Daily Beast. He lives in Manhattan.  

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