Loving uncertainty

Uncertainty is definitely in. It’s the new normal, the new rock’n’roll, the new whatever.

It’s the one thing we can be certain about.

Echoing FDR’s iconic phrase “the only thing we have to fear, is fear itself”, the President and CEO of the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia, Pat Harker, recently said, “My only concern is concern.”

Appearing on a Wharton Business School podcast, Harker went on to say “The biggest risk we face is uncertainty. If you ask every business leader, their biggest concern is: ‘Whatever changes occur, just do them gradually. Let us adapt.’ They have been in a world of change for a long time.”

Wait. Business leaders pleading for gradual change so they can adapt? I thought the mantra was ‘change or be changed’? In the new-new economy (how long can it keep being new, I wonder?) all we talk about is the speed of change. But now “every business leader” is saying “Let us adapt.”

Well, that’s good. We all need to adapt.

Here’s the thing, though; what we need to adapt to is… uncertainty. And how do you adapt to that?

Plan A. Make uncertainty your friend.

Lawyer, entrepreneur and author Jonathan Fields has a book out (published in 2011) to help you do just that. Uncertainty is about difficult things like judgment, risk, danger and fear. Check out the Ellsberg Paradox, for instance. “The Ellsberg paradox is a paradox in decision theory in which people’s choices violate the postulates of subjective expected utility.” (Uh, OK. Thanks, Wikipedia.)

Fields suggests finding ‘anchors’ of certainty to pivot around in coping with the inherent uncertainty of life. Religion, for instance. Despite the bad rap it gets sometimes (and, frankly, deservedly so), and even without the ‘spiritual’ or supernatural element, religious rituals, says Fields, “have immense power to counter the anxieties of an uncertain life”. Other kinds of habits and routines can work the same magic too.

Once you have ‘anchors’, surround yourself with people you trust and who won’t judge you (too much) for your decision making, or the choices you make in challenging situations. Then work on your neuro-biological functioning so that pre-rational, instinctive urges are better filtered by your ability to reason. And seek a broad perspective.

That way,  you can learn how to “lean into uncertainty”, tapping its creative potential, and harnessing it to fuel your projects, your passions, your life.

In fact, uncertainty can be more than your best friend, it can be “your secret weapon.” If you approach life like a designer. Patrick van der Pijl, Justin Lokitz and Lisa Kay Solomon write in Design a Better Business about how “[t]he world around you – and your business – is filled with uncertainty. But within that uncertainty exist innumerable opportunities to design (or redesign) game-changing businesses.”

For these authors, design is about “enhancing the way you look at the world” – in other words, it’s about perception. And, indeed, uncertainty itself is about perception. If we dig into the brain and its supporting structures a bit more ‘scientifically’, uncertainty becomes part of the prediction/action model in which our ‘wetware’ (to use the old cyberpunk term for human processing capability) processes the “sensory barrage” it receives and tries to “guess what is out there”.

Ergo, as philosopher Andy Clark, author of Surfing Uncertainty: Prediction, Action, and the Embodied Mind, might say, “perception is controlled hallucination” (italics in the original). What we all do, all the time, is predict, adjust, and react as the “sensory barrage” changes, seeking to “minimize surprise” so that we can maximize survival. Sounds like a plan to me!

And what of Plan B, I hear you ask? Plan B goes something like this: get scared, freak out, blame somebody, try to harm them, try to harm yourself (drink, drugs, etc), join an ethno-nationalist movement and yearn for a non-existent golden age when everything was certain and good. Or, as Froese and Ikegami put it (as quoted by Andy Clark), you can opt for “catatonic withdrawal from the world, and autistic withdrawal from others.”

So we can either see uncertainty as the natural state of things, neither inherently good nor bad, part of the perceptual framework to which we have evolved to respond. Or we can give in to the fear of fear, as FDR so eloquently put it in his first inauguration speech back in 1933, and yield to “nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror”. History shows us where that leads.




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