On Uncertainty in an Uncertain World

Uncertainty in an Uncertain World

Sometimes you come to a time in life and for a while, the same word just keeps coming up. That word for the last few weeks has been “uncertainty”.

Every now and then something—an idea, a way of thinking, making big changes for a new chapter of life—inveigles its way into your mind, and that idea, and a multitude of thoughts emanating from it, can be triggered by a single word.

And then, because you’ve started to pay attention, you see that word in different places and different guises, and each time you do, it sends the brain into motion and the idea and its many tangents will be tossed over and over and over again.

I know, I know. It’s attention bias.

Like when you’re newly pregnant and you start seeing baby bumps everywhere.

Like when you think, “I’d like to buy a Nissan Qashqai” and suddenly every second car is a Nissan Qashqai.

I get it.

The word that I’ve been attention bias-ing for the last few weeks is “uncertainty”.

Why uncertainty?

I think I was always uncertain, often overcome with uncertainty, but before I never really acknowledged it, believed it to be a weakness that I tried to hide, never saw it as something that could be beneficial.

Three quick stories about uncertainty.

1. The Mentor

Not long ago I was talking to a businessman I respect. He speaks on stages and works with organisations large and small and individuals high-powered and just starting out.

So I asked him about something that was turning around in my head on my day to day, as I spoke to potential new clients and, if the conversation took a particular turn, pitched my services as a freelance online communications and marketing specialist to them.

I said to him, “My clients are full of uncertainty about what they’re doing online, and they want me to bring certainty. But I can’t! The point of online is that it’s fluid, ever-changing, that anybody who claims to be an expert is unlikely to be. So if they want certainty and I can’t offer certainty, what the hell should I do? What should I do to get certainty?”

He replied almost instantly,

Ah, but you are certain! It’s the market that’s uncertain. And there’s a big difference there. You have certainty about the uncertainty of the market. That’s a big skill to be able to offer.

That made some sense to me.

(I’m not certain—no pun intended—that it’s made me much more relaxed about the sales conversation process, but I’m getting there…)

2. The Letter to the Editor

The Pope visited Ireland at the end of August. The two-day visit was a massive occasion.

It was the first visit of a Pope to my country since 1979. It was the single topic of conversation for a couple of weeks, with large camps in both support and opposition camps. (Ireland remains a predominantly Catholic country, although the Church’s grip on the country—and I don’t think many would protest my use of the word “grip”—has been greatly reduced in the four decades between papal visits, in large part because of the fall-out from a series of abuse and malpractice scandals which inflicted unknowable pain and suffering on many of the most vulnerable in society.)

I tuned out of the debate. I was born and raised Catholic. I get great peace in Christian churches, but it can be any denomination of Christianity, and that peace is usually most pronounced outside formal services. So I no longer attend Mass. But if there’s a God I hope he won’t judge me for it. (I explained this to a devoutly Christian 80-something-year-old recently, and he said to me: “Don’t worry. There’s a direct line to the man above.” Which I took to mean that churches are a conduit we can take or leave, if our intentions are honest, true and good.)

So I avoided all the important conversations that many people seemed to be having.

I think I realised why when I read a short letter to the Irish Times a few days before the Pope landed at Dublin Airport.

It was from Joseph McMinn, Belfast, and it read:

Looking over the many articles and letters in your newspaper about the pope’s visit to Ireland, it strikes me that the secular-liberal lobby is usually as dogmatic and righteous in its charges and demands as those it seeks to expose for hypocrisy and evasion. Do none of these people ever experience doubt or uncertainty?

3. The Podcast

I’m a podcast hummingbird. I flit and float and if I spot something and it takes my fancy, I’ll dip in to taste the nectar. If I like it, I might subscribe and come back, but even if I like it, I’m just as likely to flit on somewhere else and never return.

I found The Knowledge Project recently, and the first episode I listened to was thoroughly thought-provoking (the episode was called “Thinking about Thinking”, so it really needed to be thought-provoking!)

The interview was with Tyler Cowen, a professor of economics at George Mason University in Virginia, author of several books on economics and life, columnist for the New York Times and creator of the blog, Marginal Revolution.

Among lots of other really interesting topics—from books to blockchain, from why every move you make in chess is a mistake to why millennials could be set for impoverished retirements; the whole interview is less than an hour long, and you’ll find it over here—he had this to say on developments in the dissemination of knowledge, and why being less certain about things is actually a good thing.

We have more feedback today than ever before. Job performance is measured or can be measured in a way that wasn’t true 20 or 30 years ago. If you’re a programmer it’s not that hard to figure out how good you are. There’s GitHub and you can post what you’ve done and the world will want to hire you or they won’t. So a lot of it is psychological. How can you accept the feedback?

None of us are actually that great. Life is an experience of being humbled all the time. You can always go online and find someone who’s smarter or better looking or can lift more weights at the gym than you can. Whatever the metric is, unless it’s Magnus Carlsen and it’s chess, there’s always someone better than you. When peer groups were more local in earlier periods of time that wasn’t usually the case. So you’re either discouraged or you’re re-energised by that.

Attitudinally adapting to never being the best is a new tough challenge brought to us by the Internet. But I see many people up to it. It can be re-energising. It’s exciting how much new stuff there is to learn, so it’s good to be more internally motivated. To be more ‘I want to become something, I aspire to something’ and be less ‘I’m the best at this or that’, because you’re not.

Why should you ever hold an independent opinion on almost any matter? Because there’s someone out there who knows more than you do … So one implication is that we should be far less sure about a lot of our opinions … Be epistemically modest but also be a critical reader. Don’t think you know it all.

And if something offends you don’t assume it’s wrong. I’m not saying it’s right, but if you dismiss it you won’t learn from it, so try to be able to learn from almost everything.”

Listening to this (the uncertainty and the chess) brought to mind one of my favourite lines from literature, from Richard Ford’s novel Canada:

My mother encouraged my playing [chess]. She told me her father used to play in a park in Tacoma against other immigrants, sometimes competing in several games at once. She thought chess would sharpen my wits and make me more at ease with how complex the world was, and make confusion not a thing to fear—since it was everywhere.

(From the same book, I also jotted down a line that, now that I think of it, speaks to uncertainty: “She was an artist. She held opposites in her mind.”)

Maybe it’s silly, but I love those lines. When I read them first they made me feel like I wasn’t lost in the world, and that other people—thinking people, successful people—were exploring thoughts that echoed mine.

What response does certainty provoke?

For me, when someone adopts a position of absolute certainty on a particular subject, there are often three distinct responses:

  • Riposte. If I hold an opposing view, then I might be prompted to riposte. This might generate some healthy debate, but surely only if both sides adopt a stance of goodwill and are open to changing, swaying, compromising. If not, it can slide into needles conflict where nothing is to be gained.
  • Echo Chamber. Total agreement is not good either, right? It can lead to groupthink and lack of individual thinking. It can lead to the type of thing which we see in the walled garden of Facebook, where depending on the way we’ve set up our account all we see in our timeline is stuff that rubberstamps our worldview and doesn’t expose us to different ways of thinking, and we all need different ways of thinking to have a life well lived.
  • Unconscious Cowering. If I’m not certain, but that other person is, perhaps I might cower into my uncertainty, believing it to be a weakness of outlook or personality or even character.

What effects can uncertainty have on happiness?

I’m all too aware that when it comes to experiments on human happiness, right now all I have to go on is a data set of one.


But I do feel more comfortable now to be in a position of uncertainty, and whether it’s Trump or climate change or antidepressants or anything else, I feel distrustful of anyone who is 100% certain about anything at the exclusion of any opposing views.


And a big BUT.

Uncertainty should not, I think, be confused with indecision.

Uncertainty should be no barrier to happiness, but indecision, and the inaction that comes from it, can become a massive barrier.

So I will go on, trying my best to embrace uncertainty, trying my best to make the right decisions, and trying to do a bit better tomorrow than I did today.

With that, my four-work personal affirmation for the next month is:

Embrace knowledge. Resist certainty.

Thanks for reading.


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