“Uncertainty is the only certainty there is. Knowing how to live with insecurity is the only security.” — mathematician John Allen Paulos
On the eve-of-the-eve of election day, it’s remarkable that we somehow find ourselves in a low-information environment in (*ahem*) “uncertain times” — despite living in the most data-driven, interconnected, globally united world humanity has ever known. It’s almost like the more we think we know, the less we actually know.
Nobody knows who’s going to win this election. Because — newsflash — nobody can predict the future, which means nothing is certain. Ever.
The only thing certain is uncertainty.
This is true in varying degrees for virtually everything in life — not just elections; not just business. It’s just way more apparent than it used to be. And yet, we still get up every morning and go through the motions of a routine, as if we’re in control. Why? Because control is comfortable; certainty is reassuring. We live our lives this way. And most of us work this way.
Yes, there’s some pleasure in uncertainty. It can be delicious in the right context. But mostly, uncertainty is unsettling. For all kinds of reasons.
With uncertainty, there’s risk. In business, we take risks all day, every day — some businesses more than others. We’ve worked with NASA on projects that had literally thousands of potential points of failure and seemed impossible to work around — like gently landing a robot on Mars. So how do those guys confront risk? They tackle it head-on. They try to quantify and measure the things that will fail. And then, they either fix them, or move on. They build better models for their understanding of failure, and get teams to consider different aspects and costs of risk.
Yes, we’re talking about actual rocket science here. But we can adopt those same ideas — quantifying and measuring, fixing or moving on — for living with the uncertainty of bad information in life, politics, or business.
The fact is, uncertainty translates to risk. Constant uncertainty (which is present now more than ever) means we are constantly at risk, or forced by the circumstances to take it on. In many ways, accepting risk is accepting that we are human. We are mortal! Fallible! Ephemeral! Perhaps this year brought us back to reality in that way. And while feeling more human isn’t a bad thing, feeling more vulnerable in business is nerve wracking.
So how can you assess risk when nothing is certain?
By leaning into it. Those who play with risk and get good at it can come out on top in valuable ways. Or … not. They could lose everything. And that’s the rub: People who have lost everything — or have nothing to lose — play this game better than anyone. People who are more accepting of loss and change? They stand out. Sometimes admirably so. It takes chutzpah to face off with uncertainty. People who are decisive are often successful, even when they don’t have the answers.
We’ve watched this annus horribilis produce success and innovation for a whole list of clients, including some of the top-grossing tech businesses in the world. They lucked out — and so did we! — and a common denominator is their commitment to run their businesses with an element of risk. In most cases, these companies (big and small) had already built risk into their best practices. To accept risk is by definition to be prepared to roll with failure; but it’s also the best way to ensure effective creative partnerships.
That’s the thing about making decisions in the face of uncertainty and risk: It’s never about being right. It’s about getting better at making decisions. You can’t do that without accepting uncertainty. Intuition is built on experience, but those experiences are only valuable if the decision-maker outlives risk to tell the tale. And if you’re doing right by others in your decision-making, they should be able to learn by example without as much risk. (That’s just good leadership.)
Good decision-makers get ahead. Great decision-makers get us all ahead.
They don’t just make progress, they define it. Who doesn’t want to help create a better situation right now?
We have no idea what’s going to happen on Election Day. No profundity of polling or projections is convincing at this point. All that’s certain is our collective uncertainty. An election is a moment when everyone pauses together, in all the uncertainty, whether they voted or not in an attempt to affect the unknown outcome. Unlike elections in recent history, we might have to weather weeks of uncertainty as mail-in ballots are counted and voter-suppression anomalies are accounted for. And we’re here for it. We have to be, even after we’ve made our respective decisions.
With so much at risk — and let’s be real, just about everything is this time around — now’s a good time to rethink uncertainty as an opportunity. In elections, in business, in life, it’s up to everyone to ask more questions, be accepting of answers even if they aren’t what we were hoping for, and do whatever it takes to make better decisions going forward. Let’s embrace the uncertainty, and move forward with confidence that no matter what, the riskiest scenarios can inspire greatness.
Even if you agree that uncertainty can be a good thing, finding ways to navigate low-information environments can be tricky. We’re doing our best, but we’re certainly not experts…so we’re talking to a few. Later this month, we’ll be sharing our learnings from conversations about how to turn low-information environments into opportunities for growth. Have a burning question on uncertainty? Reply to this post and we’ll pass it along to the experts.