The four steps to navigate uncertainty

In an increasingly unstable world, we will often face the unknown. There are tools to help us

Health workers conduct Covid-19 testing at a makeshift site in Zhongguancun in Beijing in April. AFP
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Why are we so often unnerved by uncertainty? If you look back at the most significant events in your life, those which you are the most proud of – the big career shift, the geographic move, that important relationship – didn’t they all come after a period of uncertainty?

And consider that almost all innovations, breakthroughs, transformations and changes come only after first stepping into the unknown. Even when you didn’t choose uncertainty, such as the unknowns brought about by the Covid-19 pandemic, weren’t there still possibilities hidden in the wings? Although we often try to avoid uncertainty, we forget that uncertainty and possibility are really two sides of the same coin. If we want new opportunities and possibilities, we first need to go through uncertainty.

We fear uncertainty because evolution has wired us to do so. This presents a challenge because, despite your best efforts to resist, uncertainty has been increasing for decades. Driven by shifts in technology that lower barriers to entry, greater global participation and connectedness, and numerous other factors, it is clear that uncertainty has become a regular part of our personal and professional lives. The World Uncertainty Index, which tracks political and economic uncertainty, has seen a steady upward trend since the index was started in the 1990s.

The challenge is that most of us were not taught to deal with uncertainty. It simply is not a skill taught in school or handed down by parents. As our world becomes ever more uncertain, the lack of skills to deal with the unknown may result in anxiety, over-reaction and rumination.

The good news is that we can learn to face uncertainty, as evidenced in literature on topics such as ambiguity tolerance, uncertainty avoidance and resilience.

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Uncertainty and possibility are really two sides of the same coin

However, they provided limited guidance on the “how” of getting better. Entrepreneur Susannah Harmon Furr and I combined the limited empirical research that was available with interviews I have conducted over the past 10 years, in which I asked innovators how they learnt to face uncertainty. We discovered, as we outline in our new book The Upside of Uncertainty, that it is possible to train one’s ability to face uncertainty like a muscle, both as an individual and as a team.

The tools for facing the unknown can be best organised into four categories: reframe, prime, do and sustain. The first and most crucial step is to reframe uncertainty. Studies have shown that how you describe uncertainty affects how you think, decide and act. Since humans are inherently gain-seeking and loss-averse, if Treatment 1 for a new disease is described as 95 per cent effective versus Treatment 2 that is 5 per cent ineffective, we are more likely to choose treatment 1 even though both are statistically identical.

One reframing tool is the “infinite game approach” developed by the New York University professor and philosopher James Carse. Are you living your life with a “finite” lens where you learn and play by the rules to win, or living a more “infinite” game where you can question and bend your role, the rules, the boundaries and even purpose of the game? Also, consider reframing frontiers – be it geographical, technological, or personal ones related to intellectual, social, emotional or financial aspects of your life.

Then comes priming, which makes uncertainty less menacing by helping you develop self-knowledge and the conditions to pursue new projects or navigate unexpected uncertainty better. This starts with knowing your acceptance (or aversion) for a range of risks, such as financial, emotional, social, physical, intellectual or political. With that self-awareness, you can build your risk tolerance by taking smaller risks, even in non-related fields to increase your ability to take other risks. Another way is to simplify your life by outsourcing to focus your efforts on tackling the unknown.

A reproduction of a mural of Steve Jobs by British artist Banksy in Milan last year. AP Photo

Part of priming is to recognise that even the greatest innovators among us have limits to how much uncertainty they can endure. Innovators such as Steve Jobs have learnt to maintain fixed habits, routines and rituals as “uncertainty balancers” that bolster stability in some parts of their lives to counterbalance parts that are in flux. Just think of Jobs’s ever-present black turtleneck.

The next step is to take action. Our research demonstrates that most successful breakthroughs and start-ups are not made with a single giant step, but through a series of small incremental steps and changes in course along the way. We also learn from the best start-up accelerators that the ideal way to learn your way through uncertain environments is to talk to as many people from as many different backgrounds, as soon and quickly as possible.

One of the most empowering skills is to set yourself up so that you cannot fail. David Heinemeier Hansson, creator of the Ruby on Rails full-stack framework and cofounder of multiple start-ups such as Basecamp and Hey.com, uses an approach we call “values over goals”. Instead of focusing on a goal (which under uncertain conditions is just as much a guess), he argues that focusing on achieving your intrinsic values (for example, making a quality product and acting ethically in the market) ensures that you can succeed, no matter how the external world responds. Uncertainty is best resolved by taking action, but if you do so based on your values – such as learning, growth, discovery and living the life you care about – you can ensure your own success.

Another tool is to activate and unlock what’s already present instead of inventing a new solution. Maria Montessori developed an eponymous early childhood education method that activates and unlocks the natural curiosity of children with intellectual and developmental disabilities instead of reinventing the wheel.

A classroom at the Petits Bateaux Montessori primary school in Cherbourg-en-Contentin, France, last September. Reuters

When it comes to sustaining action in times of uncertainty, two important ingredients are emotional hygiene and reality-checking. We need to attend to our emotions – like how you would a physical wound – to prevent paralysing self-doubt or unproductive rumination. At the same time, recognise that setbacks and failure are part of the learning journey. Another ingredient we often neglect is to interact with the people, places and things that increase your chances of the leaps in insight, connection and serendipity that can change everything.

“Science is full of uncertainty,” said Ben Feringa, winner of the 2016 Nobel Prize in chemistry for his work on the molecular machines that could one day power nanobots in your blood to protect you from cancer or repair the pipes in your house from the inside. When asked how he deals with the uncertainty that attends scientific breakthroughs, he said “if you deal with uncertainty you will fail”, so you have to “get resilient at handling the frustration that comes with uncertainty”.

This ability to find an “upside beyond the ‘failure’” is one of many frustration-management frames that innovators use to sustain themselves through uncertainty’s roller-coaster of obstacles and breakthroughs.

As frightening as it seems, uncertainty can bring new opportunities. We can learn to be transilient, which is the moment when we see through to see through the uncertainty to the opportunity. Asking, in every moment, how can I turn this uncertainty to my advantage, can help us take that first step.

A version of this article first appeared in Insead Knowledge.

Published: July 24, 2022, 6:00 AM
Updated: August 01, 2022, 5:03 PM
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