Uncertainty seems an unwelcome visitor, but what happens when we invite it in instead of trying to hide from it? Here’s what we stand to gain by revisiting our relationship with uncertainty.
[Photo by Brett Florence]
The Cheat Sheet:
- The brain is wired to consume data. When it knows that there’s more data out there, it throws itself into a cognitive panic — we call this uncertainty.
- Uncertainty isn’t part of life; it is life.
- Uncertainty isn’t itself a problem — it merely amplifies our current circumstances, good or bad.
- Uncertainty isn’t something we should try to overcome; it should be something we seek to befriend.
- Learn to trust that uncertainty exists to serve us.
- And so much more…
My life has been many things, but mostly it’s been an experiment.
Outside of law school and Wall Street, which were probably my two most traditional chapters, I usually gravitated to the unexpected and the uncomfortable, whether it was attending high school in East Germany, working for an NGO in Mexico, traveling through North Korea when it first opened up, or building The Art of Charm when the field of social dynamics was still a subcultural backwater for nerds and theorists.
I can’t say that every single moment of those experiences was a blast. I definitely wouldn’t call them comfortable. If you’ve been following The Art of Charm for a minute, you know that I’ve paid the price in dangerous countries and made my fair share of mistakes along the way. But now that I’m the other side, I can say that those days made me the guy I am today. They weren’t always easy, but they were stimulating, formative, and demanding.
They were periods of extreme uncertainty, which is why they made such an impact.
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More About This Show
The Uncertainty Paradox
Human beings, as we know, are wired to seek pleasure and avoid pain, and to do so as easily as possible. Given our conservative design, we spend most of our time, consciously or unconsciously, seeking stability and comfort while avoiding uncertainty and stress.
And yet, as all the research tells us, it’s precisely in the midst of uncertainty that we grow the most. Exercising on unstable surfaces stimulates muscle development. Running out of cash galvanizes a start-up into beast mode. Rocky market conditions force investors to consider new investment strategies. Losing a job forces you to pick up a new skill, or recalibrate what you really want to do in life. In almost every field, positive evolution happens not in the cocoon of certainty, but in periods of instability.
Uncertainty isn’t part of life; it is life. We live in a mutating world, always turning and changing and surprising us. Which makes sense, since we’re mutating beings. As much as we crave comfort, we are built to play, discover, adapt, and become a number of different people over the course of our lives. Our flexibility as a species and the uncertainty of our world are locked in a timeless evolutionary dance: life changes, and we change in response.
In the past several years, a number of studies have shed light on exactly what uncertainty is, how it operates, and why humans are designed to avoid it. To really thrive in uncertainty, we need to understand it, so let’s take a quick look at the latest research.
The Science of Uncertainty
You probably know uncertainty as a visceral anxiety that arises in response to change. But what exactly is uncertainty, beyond our subjective experience of it?
The best definition comes from Frank H. Knight, one of the leading economists of the last century, who defined uncertainty as the state of an organism that lacks information — information about whether, where, when, how, or why an event has occurred or will occur.
What’s useful about this definition is its focus on data. As carbon machines designed to make sense of the world, we are very sensitive to information: what it says, what it means, and — this is the crucial part — how much of it we manage to get, relative to how much of it we really want. That gap is where uncertainty is born, giving rise to those familiar feelings of helplessness, confusion, and paralysis.
Why does uncertainty arise in that gap?
Because, as Ian R. Inglis explains, information is how we predict and control our environment. Our cognitive models (the mental maps we literally use to survive) actually “require the continual reduction of uncertainty” so that information-gathering can properly function.
In other words, we are creatures built for stable environments. The less certain the environment, the more unstable our mental maps, the less information we successfully process, the less we control the world around us — and the more we avoid new and interesting information.
So it’s no surprise that we think of uncertainty as bad. Because in many ways, it is bad — bad for our ancient brains, which hunger to know, analyze, and control, but can only know, analyze, and control so much information at a time. From the brain’s perspective, there’s never enough information, so it never stops feeling uncertain.
This where the research gets really interesting.
Because it turns out that uncertainty isn’t inherently bad. Instead, it’s actually what happens within conditions of uncertainty that determines our experience of it.
Take a look at this landmark study by Yoav Bar-Anan, Timothy D. Wilson, and Daniel T. Gilbert in which they proposed the uncertainty intensification hypothesis. This basically says that uncertainty makes unpleasant events more unpleasant, but that it also makes pleasant events more pleasant.
In other words, uncertainty isn’t itself a problem — it merely amplifies your current circumstances, good or bad. That idea builds on earlier research that found uncertainty following a positive event actually prolongs the pleasure it causes.
In one study, participants were shown a pleasurable movie based on a true story, and were then provided with two possible accounts of what happened to the main character after the movie was made. Participants who remained in a state of uncertainty about the character were in a good mood for significantly longer than participants who were told either that the first or second account was true.
Pretty fascinating, right?
We tend to think of uncertainty as something to avoid — and it is, so long as we crave stability — but we rarely think about the upside of uncertainty, the ways in which it actually enhances our positive experiences.
Bar-Anan and his team also point out one more crucial thing, which is that uncertainty has both an informational component (a deficit of knowledge) and a subjective component (a feeling of not knowing). That will be useful in a moment, when we get into specific ways to harness uncertainty.
So uncertainty is actually more complicated than it seems, which actually makes it more useful to explore. To sum up the latest research:
- Uncertainty is a function of the availability of information — how much we want vs. how much is available to us.
- A gap in information creates uncertainty and makes it harder for us to understand and control the world around us.
- The less control we feel, the more stability we crave, and the fewer new experiences and stimuli we seek out.
- Uncertainty itself isn’t good or bad, but actually serves to enhance our emotional reactions to events (good events feel better, while bad events feel worse).
- Uncertainty has an informational aspect (the data gap leading to uncertainty) and a subjective experience (how it feels on a gut level to be uncertain).
With that in mind, let’s dive into specific strategies for becoming friendly with uncertainty.
Turning Uncertainty into Your Friend
“I don’t even know anymore.”
Austin was calling me to talk about his job search. He had left his corporate job two years back to join a fintech start-up that ended up folding, and he was now doing the interview rounds at a number of financial-services companies. He still had some savings, but they were dwindling. No one had made him an offer yet. He barely went out anymore, mostly because he dreaded being asked what he did for a living, which brought up some anxiety in social situations. But the really scary thing, he confessed, was that the interview process had made him even less sure about what he really wanted to do with his life.
So these were pretty uncertain times for Austin.
“What do you wish you could do or know right now that you don’t?” I asked, trying to get to the heart of his problem.
Without missing a beat, he told me. “I wish I could just get rid of this feeling. This awful feeling of not knowing what my life will be like.”
Think about that. Austin didn’t want budgeting advice, interview tips, conversation tactics or even career guidance. He just wanted to avoid the feeling of being uncertain.
I’ve heard a version of this from literally hundreds of students and listeners. And I get it. I’ve been there. We’ve all felt the desire to eliminate uncertainty, even more than tackling the challenges that create it.
Which is why if you run a Google search for coping with uncertainty, you’ll find no shortage of bloggers eager to help you out.
“11 Ways Emotionally Intelligent People Overcome Uncertainty,” offers one emotional intelligence website. A leading spiritual website responds with its own handy list: “7 Ways to Deal with Uncertainty So You Can Be Happier and Less Anxious.” And if you can’t beat uncertainty, you can at least learn to deal with it by following a few “Tips on Tolerating Uncertainty.”
All of these articles begin with the assumption that uncertainty is something we must overcome. The implicit premise being that uncertainty is something undesirable, something we have to avoid, like illness or danger — at least if we have any hope of being successful, stable, emotionally healthy people.
I couldn’t disagree more.
Which is what I told Austin.
Because not only is uncertainty a fundamental constant in life, it’s actually one of the most helpful and productive environments available to us. After years of studying this stuff, I’m convinced that it’s not uncertainty we need to move beyond, but our aversion to it. That’s what most self-help approaches don’t understand — that by trying to avoid uncertainty, we’re only increasing it, and missing out on a huge opportunity.
Once we stop turning uncertainty into the enemy, we can begin to look at it, understand it, even start to enjoy it. And rather than fleeing from it, we can actually invite it in, and use it to our advantage.
Starting with the way we think.
Mind the Information Gap
As the research teaches us, uncertainty is a mental-emotional state produced by the brain when it wants more information than it has access to.
What the brain doesn’t care about is whether that information is true, useful, or even important at this moment. The brain is simply wired to consume data in any form. When it knows that there’s more data out there, it throws itself into a cognitive panic.
But think about this.
How many decisions have you made in your life — big and small — without knowing every piece of relevant data? More than you can count, I’m sure. From taking a different route home to moving to a new city to starting a company, you’ve spent most of your life making choices without knowing everything there was to know about things would turn out. And I’m willing to bet you’ve done it pretty well.
Once you realize how much of life is lived with limited information, you start to see just how well you operate in your relative ignorance. (And to the data-hungry brain, we’re always ignorant.) We leave jobs and pursue careers without knowing precisely where we’re heading. We launch new products to unknown customers, gathering data and adapting along the way. We enter relationships with people we’re still getting to know, and our ignorance about them — which we experience as curiosity — actually becomes part of the fun. We might not feel comfortable every step of the way, but we operate without knowing the full story in every aspect of our lives.
The information gap is real, but that doesn’t mean it’s important. The fact is, we live in a world that never gives us enough information, and we operate (very well, in fact) despite it.
So the next time you catch your brain scavenging for more information, take a moment and notice that mental movement. This form of meditation, of watching your hyperactive brain drive itself crazy hunting for more information — especially when there’s no more information to be found! — is the first step toward navigating uncertainty.
I shared all of this with Austin, and a few weeks later he had moved into the final rounds with two companies that really interested him (both of which, by the way, he hadn’t taken seriously until his uncertainty made him consider new career paths). This time, I could hear something new in his voice — excitement, with some amusement.
“I realized I was driving myself crazy,” he told me, chuckling a little as we talked. “Obviously I can’t know where I’m going to end up. If I did, I’d be done with the job search. But I’m not. So I’m putting one foot in front of the other, staying open, and trying not to ask too many questions about things I can’t possibly know.”
Only Seek out Information That Is Accessible and Useful
If you find that you do need more information to close the information gap, then it’s important to know exactly what kind of information you need. As we’ve discussed, the brain craves data in conditions of uncertainty, even if that data isn’t actually that meaningful. We can override that impulse by being disciplined and deliberate about the information we consume.
Ben is an AoC alum who’s been working on a social event software for the last year. His product is doing really well, and when we last caught up, he was meeting with prospective partners to build out the platform and grow the business.
As we talked, he shared his concerns about these conversations, all of which took the form of questions.
“Can Partner A actually drive new customers to our service?”
“Will Partner B really meet our technical requirements?”
“If things don’t work out with Partner C, can we go back and work with Partner A?”
“Are we even mature enough as a product to have partners in the first place?”
None of these questions were bad, of course. Ben was just doing his best to formulate a good strategy in conditions of extreme uncertainty (which pretty much sums up entrepreneurship), and all of these questions were exactly the right ones to ask during negotiations.
What struck me, though, was that Ben wasn’t concerned about whether this information was actually obtainable right now.
Could he ever know with complete certainty whether Partner A would increase sign-ups? Not until they actually formed a partnership.
Could he be confident that Partner B would meet his standards? Not until he talked with some of their other clients and laid out his requirements.
And why worry about Partner C? They hadn’t even started partnering yet, and he was already trying to figure out what to do when it didn’t work out!
Ben’s information gap was telling him that he needed answers now — as if he had to make the decision on whom to partner with right this second — as if he had to know that he had made the right decision this second! — when all he really needed to know was that it was worthwhile to meet with those partners.
Funny how that happens, right? It’s almost as if our brains don’t care whether the information is even useful or available. It just wants, and we’re left scrambling to retrieve it.
So once you catch your brain obsessing over the information gap, ask yourself these two questions.
Can I actually get this information?
Do I actually need to know this information right now?
You’ll be amazed how often your brain will hunger for information it can’t obtain, to answer questions it doesn’t need to ask.
With that perspective, you’re free — free to stop obsessing, and free to start focusing only on the information that can actually serve you right now.
For Ben, that was information about his own product’s needs and what these prospective partners could offer. Nothing more, nothing less. Once he took the meetings, he discovered new needs and new offerings, which opened up new questions. Over the course of the discussions, he learned to be disciplined about the data he was seeking. He stopped seeking information about things that hadn’t happened yet, and started getting more interested in the information he needed now.
All of which, he told me by email recently, helped him find a partner he loves, and saved a ton of energy along the way.
Accept That You’ll Never Completely Eliminate Uncertainty
Life is designed to survive, and survival depends on stability. The human project over the last 2.5 million years, if you really think about it, has basically been an effort to reduce instability as much as possible. We build shelter to protect ourselves, we manage food supplies to feed ourselves, we fight for stable jobs to support ourselves, and we organize into tribes to anchor ourselves, all in an effort to engineer certainty — or the illusion of it — as much as possible.
But no matter how stable we make our lives, uncertainty has a way of creeping in. A storm wipes out our home, a drought threatens our agriculture, a recession eliminates our job, and conflict breaks down our communities.
With every unexpected blow, it’s almost as if the world is trying to remind us that stability is a myth. And every time that happens, our natural response seems to be, “No — stability is our purpose.” We fight uncertainty by clinging even more desperately to certainty. And then another storm hits, another recession appears, and conflict, as we know too well, never goes away.
Whether uncertainty is good or bad, we have to accept that it’s an integral part of life. We don’t need to suffer unnecessarily or fail to prepare for hard times, but we can recognize that avoiding uncertainty entirely is a fool’s errand.
More than that, it’s a missed opportunity — which brings us to our final strategy.
Trust That Uncertainty Exists to Serve You
Now that I’ve been through a few major stages and cycles in my own life, I know when uncertainty creeps in and how it operates. I’m not unaffected by it — no one is, no matter what they tell you — but I’ve learned to trust that every time uncertainty has visited me, it’s made me a stronger, richer, more interesting person. Even if I don’t feel that day-to-day, I believe it. I choose to, mostly because it makes life more interesting.
As you might know, I met Jennie (my soon-to-be wife) in L.A. a few days before she was moving back to the Bay Area to make a major career move. I was growing restless in L.A., and had already been thinking about exploring a new city. Our timing could not have been worse. In fact, it was kind of a bummer, because I knew I had met someone extraordinarily special, and neither of us seemed to be in a place to commit to each other.
True to the uncertainty intensification hypothesis, the instability of that period was heightening the excitement of the relationship while amplifying the sadness that it might not go anywhere. But instead of treating the uncertainty as an obstacle, or interpreting it as a sign to call it quits, we decided to roll with it. We got a temporary place in L.A. together, she commuted to school for a bit, and we used the transition period as an opportunity to get to know each other in what turned out to be a turbulent, ambiguous, but also very exciting time.
We both evolved like crazy, and I won’t bore you with all the details. But during that period, Jen became laser-focused on her education and career move, while I invested heavily in building the podcast and redesigning our sales system. I came to appreciate a whole other side of L.A., while we both realized during our commutes that we actually wanted to end up in the Bay. She became more patient, I became more communicative. We both grew more thoughtful and curious about our lives. And, of course, we discovered what we were like in a real relationship, not when things were neat and perfect, but when our lives were in flux. By not knowing exactly where our story was headed, we were able to enjoy the challenge of writing it.
Which only happened thanks to the uncertainty of it all.
Even for those of us who are naturally anxious about change, knowing that change will ultimately fuel our growth makes it easier to take in stride. Trusting that uncertainty is designed not just to throw you, but to make you a better person, is an essential step in embracing it.
Over time, that trust will turn into excitement. After a few cycles of uncertainty leading to personal growth, new challenges will carry a hidden promise: a new problem, a new set of skills, and a new identity waiting for you on the other side.
The Bar-Anan et al. study taught us that the fulfillment we get from thriving in uncertainty is actually greater, because uncertainty only amplifies how we already feel. If we suffer through instability, we feel even worse. If we grow through instability, we feel even stronger. It’s not uncertainty that dictates our moods, but how we operate during that uncertainty. Which means we can actually use the affective power of uncertainty to heighten our sense of accomplishment during periods of adversity, by embracing it as fuel rather than avoiding it a burden.
Most of the great self-help coaches have echoed an ancient piece of wisdom: that everything in life happens for you, not to you.
You could say the same of uncertainty. Instability isn’t a problem that threatens, it’s an opportunity that visits. If you don’t feel that naturally — and many of us don’t, which is perfectly normal — then try this exercise as an experiment: act as if uncertainty is always happening in your favor. What happens when you accept change as if you had chosen it yourself?
Byron Katie, the teacher, puts it like this: “You don’t have to like [how life plays out] … it’s just easier if you do.”
Apply that to uncertainty, and you’re on your way to making it your friend.
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