Certainty Isn’t The Answer To Uncertainty

The world and life itself are always uncertain. There are periods where it all feels more uncertain than normal. Those periods leave people grasping for processes and interpretations. They get emotionally charged. They produce hard conversations. We, the professionals in whatever industry we occupy, add value when we step into the arena of uncertain times and bring a sense of calm, confidence, and humility.

We don’t have all of the answers – we can’t – but we can help people cope with the stress and get through to the other side. Within uncertainty is a tangled web of mixed emotions, regrets, and expectations. Understanding the sources of uncertainty within uncertainty itself are essential. Howard Marks shares this parable in The Most Important Thing,

I tell my father’s story of the gambler who lost regularly. One day he hears about a race with only one horse in it, so he bet the rent money. Halfway around the track, the horse jumped over the fence and ran away.

Hope and bad luck can sometimes go hand and hand. So can despair and good luck, despair and bad luck, and occasionally, hope and good luck (cue the singing angels). In all cases, the most irrational thought we can have is to think we have a sure thing. None of these relationships between hope/despair and good/bad luck is perfectly predictable. All we can have is a process. This is the messiness of the real world.

“Kills 99.99% of germs” still leaves 0.01% of germs alive. 90% fat-free is still 10% fat. When the loser gambler got offered the bet on the one-horse race, he felt hope and good luck. He had 0% odds of picking a loser horse! And yet, after the horse jumped the fence he certainly felt despair and bad luck. The problem is in his logic (or lack thereof). Believing in sure things is to think there is only one way to be right or wrong. This is where our process can help us and those we are trying to help out.

Annie Duke says in Thinking in Bets, “But it also means we must redefine ‘right.’ If we aren’t wrong just because things didn’t work out, then we aren’t right just because things turned out well. . . .” The loser gambler can’t figure this out. We can be right and still proven wrong, and wrong and still proven right. It’s as hard to step back and analyze our decision-making process as it is to untangle our complex emotions of how we feel about the results.

Most people just need to talk things out. They need to be reminded to zoom out and see the big picture. They need an explanation of when the decision-making process needs to be changed and when it needs to be the same because short and long term results may vary, and “past performance is not indicative of future results.” As hard as it may feel, all of the opportunity is in uncertainty, not in discovering mythical sure things and certainly not in falling for betting on one horse races.

Certainty isn’t the answer to uncertainty, being a present leader with a process and humble respect for the world is. Our jobs are to get people to the other side of one potential pitfall after another. There will be stumbles. Our job is to agree on a problem to solve and then make them comfortable with the uncertainty in getting there. Our job is to balance hope and despair in the face of good and bad luck. When we do it well, we all win. Its never easy, but it really is the most important thing.