Poised for success. That is how I would describe an acquaintance of mine. Let's call him Peter. His product had a meaningful chance to impact a key aspect of the financial services industry. He had a good plan and a motivated team. But there was one thing that continued to hold Peter back--the unknown.

The problems began when Peter's investors asked to see the team "drive fast use of the application." Peter was not ready and neither were customers--it was going to take a meaningful amount of time to organically grow the business.

So he had a choice. He could follow through with his plan and brave the uncertainty of whether investors would stick around. Or he could shift his product focus to another (less interesting) challenge that he could solve more quickly by giving a tool away for free--which might better show the immediate "use" results his investors desired.

He chose the latter, the safe option. And yes, investors were able to see sign-ups and users right away. But the business never had a chance because it was not a problem people would actually pay to solve. Peter and his company never built the business he had planned for--one that had real promise, but needed more time to create.

Peter had a plan. But he was unable to stick to it when it required patience. A short-term mindset derailed his plan.

None of us can control the unknown. But we can control how we approach it. In fact, scientists say that successful entrepreneurs have a high tolerance for ambiguity. It is the trait that makes it possible to say, "This is my plan. It will probably work. I plan on sticking with it but I am open to taking in new information as the plan unfolds."

How comfortable are you with the unknown? If your answer is "very," then you might be one step ahead of Peter. It is a unique perspective--the duality of being a confident planner and a humble learner. And the hardest part is knowing when to hold firm and when to pivot to Plan B. Making that decision in an emerging company is not easy.

However, that does not mean it is impossible to choose the right path. Here are a few steps we can all take to embrace a healthy tolerance for ambiguity and stay on track:

Make small bets

Embracing ambiguity does not mean you are always making big, high-risk choices. It can start small. Take Amazon's Jeff Bezos for example. He has compared entering new markets to "planting seeds" or "going down blind alleys." So he takes low-risk actions to test out and develop big ideas. He once noted, "Many efforts turn out to be dead ends. But every once in a while, you go down an alley and it opens up into this huge, broad avenue."

Focus on what works

In other words, stay positive. One Duke University study found that 80 percent of CEOs are considered "very optimistic." Many of them likely got to these leadership positions by navigating the unknown with positivity--focusing on what works helps keep them from feeling burned out. They do not sink into despair when things get unsteady. Rather, they remain acutely aware of what is working and where they are currently creating value. And then they build upon that.

Learn a new skill

Taking on a new skill is all about diving into the unknown. You are a novice, trying to make sense of something that is foreign to you. Studies say that learning a new language is particularly helpful for this. Think about it--if you are having a conversation in a new language, you will not understand every word. But the more you speak, the more comfortable you will get with the ambiguity. Instead of leaning on your dictionary, you will likely make guesses and glean meaning from expressions.

Chaotic, unknown situations will always be a part of life and business. But that is not what gets us into trouble--it is our refusal to wade into them. Or fear of temporary uncertainty, which can break our confidence.

You can be like Peter (and granted, he was being heavily pressured to pivot his business). Or you can welcome ambiguity--see it as an exciting challenge. An opportunity to improve. This is no guarantee for success, but being open to uncertainty along the way is what makes good leaders great.

How do you embrace the unknown?

Published on: Jan 30, 2017
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.