Mindbloggling

Current ideas about cultural evolution and the creative processes that power it.

The Hidden Meaning of “It Is What It Is”

Are We Becoming More Comfortable with Ambiguity and Potentiality?


It seems that increasingly often you hear hear the phrase, “it is what it is”. I was taking the phrase to mean, “It’s not this and it’s not that; it’s something more subtle that I don’t have a name for, and I’m ok with that”. In other words I took it to be an indication that the speaker is letting the thing thing just exist in all its rich uniqueness without having to categorize it or analyse it. 

The increased use of “it is what it is” seemed to be a sign that people are increasingly comfortable with “states of potentiality”, which are states that could “collapse” to different actual states depending on the context. As a simple example, in one situation you might interpret a bat as a toy and in another situation you might interpret a bat as a weapon. There may be no objective answer to the question of whether a bat is a toy or a weapon; it’s in a state of potentiality that depends on the context. This may seem like a simple phenomenon but it has profound implications for how people think and how they conceive of the world they live in. It enables them to continually re-conceptualize things in new and creative ways. For example, if someone puts a pylon on their head you might see the pylon as an instance of the concept “hat”. A society that goes around saying “it is what it is” might seem to be a society that accepts and even relishes a world in which pylons can be hats, a world ripe with possibilities. (For more on this see previous blogs on creativity and quantum structure.)

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Potentiality is not the same thing as ambiguity, but they are related. If something has the potential to unfold to different actual states then its current state may appear ambiguous. One of the characteristics of creative people is that they tend to be comfortable with ambiguity. By letting things hang in an uncategorized state in their mind they may slowly come to a richer, more nuanced understanding of it, which may lead to a new insight or invention. (I’ve always thought psychologists were dead wrong to ever use reaction time as a measure of intelligence; fast reflexes can mean you hastily put things into categories as opposed to seeing them in all their rich messy detail, which in the short run impedes your ability to respond quickly but in the long run facilitates a nuanced understanding.)

Leonardo DiCaprio and animated, talking avatar of his his female self
Leonardo DiCaprio (left) and 3D, animated, talking avatar of his his female self (right).
So I was thinking of the increased use of “it is what it is” as an indication that people are increasingly resisting the temptation to force things into categories, to be comfortable with the unknown. Another indication of this is the increased use of abstract prints (nonrepresentational art) on fabrics, and music that doesn’t stay in one key. Yet another indication is the increased discussion and acceptance of ambiguity with respect to gender. I’ve been thinking about this issue more lately not just because of the many cases of trans-gender individuals in the news, but because Face Fries (the mobile app discussed in my last posting that takes 2D photos and turns them into talking, animated 3D avatars) lets you see what you might look as a male if you’re female and vice versa. I’ve inserted a few photos of celebs and their alter-gender selves created with Face Fries. People are invariably fascinated by creating and interacting with gender-altered versions of themselves. There is a sense in which you see this avatar as someone who could have existed, or who almost existed. You feel a certain kinship with this almost-existing version of yourself, and by exploring who you could have been you can come away with a richer sense of who you actually are. Playing around with this feature of the app, exploring gender-altered versions of friends, family members, and celebrities seems to leave people with a sense of living in a reality that is not quite so stuck in “the way things are” as they thought.

So… I had this upbeat interpretation of “it is what it is” that was connected to the acceptance of ambiguity and suggestive of a world full of possibilities. But after talking with some friends I realized that there are other interpretations of it. One friend told me that the phrase actually leaves her with a sick feeling in her gut. To her the phrase indicates resignation, a sense of acceptance that something isn’t up to par. Which struck me as sad.

But then I realized: the phrase “it is what it is” is itself in a state of potentiality. In some contexts it can indicate an acceptance of complexity and ambiguity. In other contexts it can indicate an acceptance of limitations. It's a phrase that may well have yet other shades or meaning, or be evolving new shades of meaning as I write this. It’s not one static thing. It is what it is.

© 2014 Liane Gabora All Rights Reserved.

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Liane Gabora, Ph.D., is an Assistant Professor of Psychology at the University of British Columbia.

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