On Uncertainty in an Uncertain World

Uncertainty in an Uncertain World: How we might become adept at the uncertainty of life

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

Why uncertainty?

Well, for many people now, from all walks of life and all situations and demographics, life is so uncertain.

For me, I think I was always uncertain. I was often overcome with uncertainty, but in the past I never really acknowledged it. I believed it to be a weakness that I needed to hide, and I could never see it as something that could be beneficial.

That has changed. Let me explain why.

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 ranging from the high-powered and to the ones 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 business coaching, strategy and digital communications and marketing services to them.

That something was about uncertainty: how I feel so uncertain about everything that I aim to do; how the untold expanse of the future is so unpredictable that it overshadows me all the time.

I said to him, “My business clients are full of uncertainty about digital marketing, about how they’re communicating about their businesses over the Internet. They are uncertain, and they want me to bring certainty. But I can’t! One of the cornerstones of the Internet is that it’s fluid, ever-changing, and that anybody who claims to be “a guru” or “an expert” is actually very 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. 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.

2. The Letter to the Editor

The Pope visited Ireland in August 2018. 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.

I count myself as deeply spiritual and believe in infinite intelligence, higher power, the universe, Mother Nature, divinity, God, or whatever you might call it. But I no longer attend Mass. (I explained this to a devoutly Christian 80-something-year-old recently, and he said to me: “Don’t worry about it. You have a direct line to the man above.” Which I took to mean that churches are a conduit to divinity that we might take or leave, if our intentions are honest, true and good.)

So I avoided all the 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?

Uncertainty cuts both ways. Faith — in whatever we want to have faith in — is motivated, at least in part, by doubt and 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 I guess thought-provoking was minimum threshold…)

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. Post what you’ve done on GitHub 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 (uncertainty in general, and the part about chess in particular) brought to mind one of my favourite lines from literature, from Richard Ford’s novel Canada:

My mother encouraged my playing. 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.

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.

Tyler Cowen’s thoughts about uncertainty provoked a similar reaction: that uncertain, when we embrace it, is a great thing.

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.

Me.

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.

But.

And a big BUT.

Uncertainty should not 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 to happiness.

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 on the uncertainty of life and what to do about it is:

Embrace knowledge. Resist certainty.

Thanks for reading.

Shane

For more pieces that might be interesting, check out Brexit and the mood of uncertainty, why we need to choose a time and a place for vulnerability and the old brain, survival pschology and how we might balance it. If you like any of my pieces, consider signing up to receive my latest writing by email below. (It’s free…) I also have an audio show, the Life Well Lived podcast, which is a series of interviews with people I admire and respect about how we might navigate and overcome the challenges of life.