Wednesday, 19 August 2009

Embracing uncertainty

Uncertainty = Bad, Certainty = Good.

I think that’s the way we are conditioned to think and behave – not liking uncertainty.

We go to school and learn facts about things. I remember finding out that we don’t really know who Shakespeare is and being astounded. How could all of those teachers have taught me Shakespeare’s plays and never let on that there was a huge question over who he actually was? Maybe they didn’t know that we don’t know. Or maybe they just didn’t want to say. Or maybe it was too complex an idea for young fragile minds. I don’t know.

I do know that uncertainty wasn’t a big thing when I was at school. Even chemistry experiments had a right or wrong answer – they weren’t experiments at all. Well, at least not most of the time.

The only time I ever got “taught” about uncertainty was in the final year of my MBA. I had three years (I did it part-time) with no uncertainty, then in the final year the idea that maybe we don’t know quite as much as we were letting on was introduced. It was the best and most instructive year of the whole course. I had a fabulous tutor who gently and patiently taught me how not to know things. It was a major step forward which I have been grateful for ever since. It gave me permission to find out things for myself and admit that I didn’t know. It was liberating and empowering.

Of course there are many areas where uncertainty is taught and learnt, but I suggest for the most part we prefer being sure about things rather than being unsure. I think human beings are basically uncomfortable with uncertainty. For obvious reasons I guess.

The truth is, however, that very little is certain. This credit-crunching recession is teaching us that. Just when you get used to life as we know it, along comes a global rug and pulls everything from under us.

The physicist Richard Feynman talked about uncertainty. He was certain that he was happy with uncertainty. At least he was much happier being uncertain about something than believing something to be true which in fact wasn’t.

It’s a fundamental thought. How many things do I think are true, whereas in fact they may not be?

There are areas of my life that are riddled with uncertainty. I don’t like it - I’m forever trying to figure out how things should work and how I should behave, just to have the whole pack of cards come tumbling down again. So maybe I’ve got it all wrong. Maybe my models have just fooled me into thinking I know something when in fact I don’t. I would be better off accepting that I don’t know, and stop struggling.

So perhaps:
Uncertainty = Good, Certainty = Bad.

Some of the time, at least!

Hear Richard Feynman talking about uncertainty:


  1. Caroline

    An intersting development and quite a change maybe?

    Is it a change or were you always challenging the boundaries?

    I have recently asked my team and shareholders about our business and developed a SWOT, someone suggested we should aspire to be "boring" . On the face of it that sounds xxxxxx, yes? but in reality it is I believe and they do too, about finding space and time to explore the more intersting less certain environments , the places we can go to add value and make a difference.

    The challenge is to avoid staying in the zone of contentment and moving through denial. confusion an remain in the zone of renewal.I'll forward you the refernce to this work.

    Stay real, stay in the ZOUD, the zone of useful discussion and welcome challenge!


  2. Very inspiring - We need to learn about uncertainty, as we are always going to face it and must know how to cope with it.

    I think this should be more present at school - it would help children who are more creative feel they can be, and those who need "order" in their lives learn how to cope and find order in chaos.

  3. Robert

    ... finding space and time to explore the more intersting less certain environments , the places we can go to add value and make a difference...

    What wonderful thoughts. Once the acceptance of uncertainty becomes "OK" a whole new world opens up. As you put it - it becomes quite an entrepreurial concept.

    And your points about contentment and denial really ring true - its all about getting out of the comfort zone.

    Thanks! And yes, please, would love the reference ....

  4. Mireia

    Yes, the whole school thing is interesting isn't it? I'd like to think things have changed since the dark ages when I was at school, but creativity wasn't high on the agenda. I guess there's also an argument that you have to learn the rules before you can start bending/breaking them.

    But I so agree - finding uncertainty more inspiring than frightening ...