At any point of the day yesterday were you uncertain of something?
I’m going to go ahead and guess that there is a good chance that you were. Now think a bit, how exactly did that make you feel? Anxious, stressed, confused, or were you totally comfortable, calm, cool, and collected?
When faced with uncertainty many of you might turn into the chronic “over-thinker.” Analyzing every minute detail, trying to figure out every possible scenario, waiting for 100% certainty to take action and make things happen. The problem with 100% certainty is that it will never come.
Waiting for 100% certainty is like waiting for a deep breath submerged in a cold pool. It’s never going to happen and the longer you wait for it the closer you come to drowning.
100% certainty protects people from doing anything. It keeps you safe, secure, and comfortable and as we all know by now real growth comes from exercising options outside of your comfort zone and well outside of certainty.
Way to many of us don’t bother reacting until we’re faced with adverse consequences; I like to refer to this as death bed syndrome. I remember when I made the decision to take a trip around the world a few years back. I had quit my job and had no clue how I’d be able to earn a living while I was gone or when I came back. I had moved out of my apartment so upon my return I was not sure where I’d be living. I had no real travel plans, I wasn’t sure what I’d be doing in each country, who I’d be staying with, if I’d be safe, or how I’d communicate or even get around.
All of these uncertainties scared the bejesus (yes, this is a real term) out of me but had I waited for 100% certainty to take action…. well, then I’d still be waiting.
There’s real value to be found in uncertainty
Old school British philosopher Bertrand Russell wrote an essay in December of 1951 for the New York Times Magazine outlining the 10 commandments of teaching.
Although it was originally intended as a guideline for teaching I find it to be very relevant when dealing with uncertainty. For now I just want to focus on rule #1: Don’t feel absolutely certain of anything.
Don’t get me wrong now, a little analytical thinking is a very good thing. If we didn’t doubt ourselves every once in a while it would actually make it harder to make really good decisions. But too much thinking leaves little room for action, this is why there is real value found in uncertainty.
As a society we are drawn to what is known, the facts, statistics, and definitive answers given by experts or trustworthy influences in our lives and drawn away from or hold feelings of indifference to that which is unknown. However, it’s these unknown feelings, thoughts, and questions that make life interesting.
If I knew exactly how my life was going to play out from the time I was born until the day I part I’d be highly unmotivated to pursue anything. The shear thought of the unattainable makes life matter to me. Tell me I can’t do something, achieve something, or have something, and I’ll show you the most determined man in the world.
When faced with too much uncertainty it’s common to see two things occur:
1. Fact chasing: Devouring anything and everything you can get your hands on to answer the questions you are curious about. This leads to too much researching and not enough action. Here’s the problem with facts, they serve to access ignorance. Facts should serve as a starting point but then looked beyond to find real growth.
Often what will happen is we take our own experiences and treat them as evidence or fact. These bias’ can often be useful but at other times can cloud our vision. One way that this might occur is through confirmation bias. Confirmation bias is when you actively seek evidence, “facts,” or other information that will assign more weight or value to the outcome you are hoping for.
“…Be careful. People like to be told what they already know. Remember that. They get uncomfortable when you tell them new things. New things…well, new things aren’t what they expect. They like to know that, say, a dog will bite a man. That is what dogs do. They don’t want to know that man bites a dog, because the world is not supposed to happen like that. In short, what people think they want is news, but what they really crave is olds…Not news but olds, telling people who what they think they already know is true…” – Terry Pratchett through the character Lord Vetinari from his novel, “The Truth: a novel of Discworld
2. Just gimme a damn answer: This usually happens after fact chasing but can also happen on its own if you have some other stress going down in your life. It’s when you just don’t feel like dealing with the uncertainty anymore and get wrapped up in just getting to an answer to your questions. At this point any answer will do.
The human brain tries it’s damnedest to work as little as possible so to make sense of things it turns experiences into symbols, can recall sensations (this is why if you burn your hand on a hot stove it’s highly unlikely you’ll touch it again. The brain equates a turned on stove as hot as sh*t!), it uses patterns, and thinks about the probability of something occurring.
However, this process can take a lot of energy so what happens is you take short cuts to get to the answers that you might seek. We touched on this just up above with regards to the confirmation bias and seeking out information or ideas that confirm what you think you already “know” or support an outcome or decision you are slightly biased towards.
Another way the ol’noodle upstairs tries to take a short cut is through a concept known as the gamblers fallacy. The gamblers fallacy is the belief that a random process becomes less random and can even be predicted as it is repeated.
For example, if you were to flip a coin the odds of it coming up heads or tails is 50/50 right? But if for some odd reason heads were to come up 15 times in a row one falling for the gamblers fallacy would assume that heads luck is about to run out and tails has to come up even though the odds are still and will always be 50/50.
“…On August 18, 1913, at the casino in Monte Carlo, black came up a record twenty-six times in succession [in roulette]. … [There] was a near-panicky rush to bet on red, beginning about the time black had come up a phenomenal fifteen times. In application of the maturity [of chances] doctrine, players doubled and tripled their stakes, this doctrine leading them to believe after black came up the twentieth time that there was not a chance in a million of another repeat. In the end the unusual run enriched the Casino by some millions of francs…” Source: Darrell Huff & Irving Geis, How to Take a Chance (1959), pp. 28-29.
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Dealing with uncertainty? Logical thinking to the rescue
When you’re dealing with uncertainty it’s easy to try to convince yourself that using common sense is the best approach to remedy it. However, common sense is often wrong.
“…common sense Is a way of taking social understandings and rules, and applying them to a situation, by using common sense, doesn’t necessarily lead us to the truth. That explains the difference in the most simplest form and easiest way to understand…” adapted from the logicsite.net
Common sense often is based on assumptions, social or societal expectations, and is easily influenced by those you trust and respect. Common sense is the easy way out, the “just gimme a damn answer” route. A better and more accurate approach would be to use logic to come to a conclusion.
Logical thinking is sequential thought taking in steps by taking ideas, facts, experiences, adding them all up and coming to an answer. It’s the act of combing ideas to come to a conclusion. Think of it like this.
Things you know + Other things you know = Change (conclusion)
It’s important because this allows you to avoid quick answers like “I don’t know” or “It’s to hard.”
Combining ideas, experiences, and facts can help you to understand that there are often many more ways to come to a conclusion or solution to a problem than just one definitive way. To better understand things you are uncertain about get good at asking questions and combining those ideas, facts, and experiences.
Here’s an example of using just common sense versus logical thinking:
If you are overweight or want to drop some body fat common sense would tell you that you need to exercise more, eat less, and choose better foods right?
That’s awesome but it absolutely gives you no direction whatsoever.
Logical thinking would have you analyze why exactly you have not been finding time to consistently exercise or prepare healthy meals. You’d discover how exactly to create more time and shuffle priorities so that these things can be accomplished. You’d start to recognize patterns such as you only eat crappy when you are with certain people, or that you always skip your workouts on Mondays and Wednesday because work typically keeps you late.
“…If you have problems of any kind take a moment to jot it down on a piece of paper. Break it down, analyse it and look at tackling the problem with a logical mind. You will be surprised how this simple process / exercise can make a problem so much easier to solve. Many people today worry about issues concerning money, health, jobs, retirement, children etc. however many people do little about tackling their problems in a logical manner, when these problems arise emotions kick in and logical thinking is a process which should involve no facts based on emotion.
It has been proven that people who think logically are smarter, they reach more accurate results and conclusions. Logical thinking people reach conclusions based on facts and accurate analysis with no emotion involved…” logicsite.net
If you decide to embrace uncertainty get ready for criticism
If you embrace uncertainty head on you’ll make mistakes, I guarantee it. The trick to making good mistakes lies in not trying to hide them, especially not to hide them from the self. The best thing to do is to try to understand them through concepts like logical thinking and to avoid blaming yourself or others and instead simply accepting responsibility for them and become action oriented towards improving them, reflect on them, learn from them, and use them in the future.
There are patterns everywhere, even in the mistakes that we make and the brain is very good at recognizing them if we let it. However, more often than not we tend to get in our own damn way and fail to recognize these patterns. Instead relying on those personal biases, conventional wisdom, and allowing ourselves to be easily influenced by outside opinions.
The purpose of this post is to simply promote creative exploration and independent thought. To continue to seek out ways to educate ourselves in The Art of Getting Better at Being Human and getting comfortable with uncertainty is definitely something I think we all could stand to work on.
For today, this week, or even the next year when you feel uncertain about something I’d like you to try this:
Uncertainty often leads to worry. If you’re uncertain about your job you may worry that you’ll lose it. If you’re uncertain about your partner you may worry that it won’t work out. If you’re uncertain about your diet and exercise you may worry you’re putting in all this effort for nothing. If you continually seek to find perfect (and perfection leads to procrastination) certainty you will continue to worry about everything. The funny thing about the things you worry about is that they almost never happen.
Accept uncertainty and seek out less reassurance by looking to the ways in which you already embrace uncertainty. Everyday you take a car to work, I’m sure most of you have flown in a plane, had to interact with someone new, moved to a new city, or started a new project at work. In each of those instances you had to embrace not knowing the outcome.
The best way to accept uncertainty is to recognize that you can not always control the actions and reactions of others. You can only control the actions and reactions of yourself. Knowing and having trust in that creates a powerful sense of certainty.
Look to a close friend that displays signs of accepting uncertainty. Maybe a friend that isn’t afraid to take risks and pursues personal challenges often. Are they acting irresponsible or putting themselves in any real danger? Most likely they are not.
What is the biggest uncertainty you have in your life right now? What are some ways you can think logically about it and embrace it with open arms?
Photo – Matthew Wiebe