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How to Embrace Uncertainty: The Experts Weigh In

A few weeks ago, we made a case for embracing uncertainty in low-information environments — AKA the election, the pandemic, the year 2020. 

One comforting thought: We’ve had hundreds of thousands of years to ponder the problem of uncertainty. Consciousness of risk is at least as old as humanity, and thinkers throughout recorded history have proposed strategies for navigating it. 

In that spirit, we’re thinking this week about how different observations about this fundamental human condition apply to the workplace, as well as our lives and politics. We cherry-picked some experts — current and past — for insights and actions. Here’s what we boiled down. 

P.S. Unfortunately throughout ancient and even more recent history, “expertise” is a word reserved for white males. If you know of additional sources, especially within BIPOC communities, please reply and let us know so that we can consider them for inclusion in a future installment.

Bertrand Russell, “The Analyst”

Best known for his work in mathematical logic and analytic philosophy, Lord Bertrand Russell (1872–1970) was a no-nonsense British philosopher whose interests ranged from ethics to epistemology.

“I think nobody should be certain of anything. If you’re certain, you’re certainly wrong because nothing deserves certainty. So one ought to hold all one’s beliefs with a certain element of doubt, and one ought to be able to act vigorously in spite of the doubt.”Excerpt from a 1960 television interview with politician and journalist Woodrow Wyatt

Russell believed that a statement’s logical form helps to solve problems of ambiguity and vagueness. Find a way to talk about your present challenges in a language that everyone on your team can understand. Then, act with vigor — with certainty! — even if, especially if, you’re uncertain about the outcome. Acknowledge that there will always be an element of doubt, which makes it irrelevant. Get over it and move on. 

Write down your present challenge in plain language. Gather a small committee to discuss the challenge for a set amount of time. Plan to come to a consensus thereafter. Then, make your move.

Martha Nussbaum, “The Ethicist”

A renowned moral philosopher and distinguished author and professor of law, Martha Nussbaum (b. 1947) has published scores of books and papers on topics ranging from tragedy and vulnerability, to the role of emotions in politics. 

“To be a good human is to have a kind of openness to the world, an ability to trust uncertain things beyond your own control, that can lead you to be shattered in very extreme circumstances for which you were not to blame. That says something very important about the ethical life: that it is based on a trust in the uncertainty, and on a willingness to be exposed.”Excerpt from a conversation with Bill Moyers for “A World of Ideas” (1988)

Making good decisions is rooted in being a good human, and exercising your conception of the good in cooperation with others. When you use all of the tools available to you as a human — including practicing integrity, practical reason, and empathy (these are among Nussbaum’s list of central capabilities) — you’ll be in a better position to trust what is beyond your control, and potentially influence it.

Consider your challenge from the perspective of each of Nussbaum’s 10 capabilities: actual opportunities based on personal and social circumstance. Do not limit your time. Make a decision only after you have carefully considered the implications of all 10.

Dan Ariely, “The Behaviorist”

As founder of the research institution The Center for Advanced Hindsight, Israeli-American professor and author Dan Ariely (b. 1967) has a lot of theories about people. Namely, we’re irrational — which means that we’re capable of reasoning our way through life’s uncertainties.

“Research on how people make decisions shows that we usually don’t stop to think about our actions; we make choices automatically rather than deliberately. From this perspective, the current uncertainty might be a gift.” —  Excerpt from Ariely’s Wall Street Journal column, “Ask Ariely” (6/25/20)

Ariely believes that humans are innately hardwired to make certain decisions based on circumstances — not outcomes. To effectively influence the outcome, you’ve got to have a plan. Even if it’s impossible to follow prescriptively, a solid plan will always help you clarify what steps you can take now to reach your goal. 

Take time to write down a detailed blueprint for what you want your business to look like once you’ve resolved your current challenge. Reflect on your plans, then begin making thoughtful decisions to get there — and make sure you feel really comfortable with them along the way.

I Ching,“The Sage”

Sometimes called the Book of Changes, I Ching (ca. 800 BCE) is the world’s oldest oracle, an ancient book of Chinese divination and wisdom, literally set in stone at some point around 130 BCE. The original self-help guide, it presents ideas meant to shift your attention away from outside stimuli in order to positively focus your attention to the heart of the matter.

“To go one's way with sincerity brings clarity.” — Hexagram 17/Line 4

Stop grasping for advice and answers in the environment around you. Even when uncertainty abounds, the answers — and truly, the best advice you’ll find — are already within you. (You may just need a little help channeling it.) 

Write down your challenge or uncertainty using an open-ended question, e.g., “What would happen if we launched a new product next spring?” Using three coins, follow the I Ching method to tossing and recording your coin-flip sequence until you have constructed a six-line hexagram pattern. Consult an I Ching translation to interpret your hexagram, then go forth with confidence.

Plato, “The Godfather”

Of the Big Three ancient Greek philosophers, Plato (ca. 428–348 BCE) is the one who had the forethought to write everything down. Centuries prior to our modern obsession with behavioral economics, he used systematic philosophy methods to understand predictable irrationalities of the human mind.

“A good decision is based on knowledge and not on numbers.”From Laches, or Courage (380 BCE)

Plato’s rationale goes something like this: 
Reason → Pure Knowledge → What’s Truly Good → Happiness
In other words, to be happy with your decision, you must first consider the facts. Skepticism? Not today. Knowledge is justified, verified belief. So don’t take any chances. Go with what you know. Period.

Write down your challenge, and any/all facts known about your challenge. Tap your leadership team to discuss the challenge, utilizing all of the facts to argue all sides possible, and make a unified decision. Whatever you do, ignore public opinion. Plato wasn’t down with democracy.

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Further Reading

We’ve been doing a lot of reading about the psychology of uncertainty. And while sorting through three centuries’ worth of potential wisdom, we’ve uncovered a few gems along the way:

Article is a 100% organic, free-range, desktop-to-inbox newsletter devoted to helping you navigate uncertainty, seek the most interesting challenges, and make better creative decisions in marketing and beyond. We deliver Sundays at 6pm ET twice monthly. Article is published by Article Group, a delightful creative agency of talented problem-solvers. We're more fox than hedgehog. We are for hire.
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