Chasing Uncertainty

There’s a Buddhist fable. A farmer loses his horse. His neighbours come over to sympathise about this misfortune. But the farmer shrugs: who knows if it is a misfortune or not. The next day, the horse returns, and it brings ten more wild horses with it. The neighbours congratulate the farmer on his excellent fortune, but the farmer just shrugs. Next day, the farmer’s son falls off one of the feral horses while training it. He breaks a leg. The neighbours express their condolences. But the farmer simply shrugs. Soon the country declares war, and the army comes to the village to recruit all able-bodied young men. The son is passed over because of his fractured leg. How wonderful, everybody things! And yet the farmer shrugs. Who knows!

The future is uncertain. No matter what we do, think or believe, we have no control over it. Therefore, it makes no sense to try to guess it. Uncertainty is just uncertainty. It’s neither good, nor bad, nor personal. Without us supplying meaning, everything that happens is just at random.

The most we can do is to learn to control what we can, i.e., our thinking, our decision process, and our reactions. This starts with admitting that we can’t know everything, and accepting our lack of agency. Then, instead of resorting to gimmicks, we can attempt to analyse the unknown as best as we can with the tools of rationality. But the outcome itself—that we cannot control.

Uncertainty will always be a factor in everything we undertake. Skill can open up new choices and allow us to see better and faster what others less skilled than us may miss—but should chance go against us, all skill can do is mitigate the damage. With that in mind, the best way to go about it is to treat uncertainty as a companion to benefit from instead of a danger to avoid.

In the seventeenth century, mathematician Pierre de Fermat proposed that there’s no solution to the formula a^n + b^n = c^n when n is greater than 2. Fermat claimed to have a proof, but died before supplying it. This came to be known as Fermat’s last theorem, and it baffled mathematicians for centuries.

Until Andrew Wiles came along.

As a kid living in Cambridge, England, Wiles spotted a book devoted entirely to Fermat’s last theorem in his local library, and was blown away by the mystery of the theorem—one that was so easy to state, yet almost impossible to prove.

He returned to it decades later as a maths professor and devoted seven years to working on it in secrecy. In 1993, Wiles publicly revealed that he had solved it. It was a true eureka moment in the history of mathematics.

But the celebrations proved premature. Wiles had made a mistake in a critical part of his proof. It would take another year, and collaboration with another mathematician, to repair the proof.

While reflecting upon how he managed to prove the theorem, Wiles compared the process of discovery to navigating a dark mansion. You start in a room and go about grabbing, poking, and bumping into things. After a series of failures and a constant state of confusion, you might eventually find the light switch. You then move on to the next dark room and begin all over again.

In many cases, we might keep on stumbling around in the dark room without ever finding anything. Even if we find a light switch, it may illuminate only part of the room, revealing that the remainder of the room is far bigger—and far darker—than we imagined. The path of stumbling upon something new is never straight. There’s no guarantee that you’ll succeed. Nothing is certain. But there’s no guarantee that you’ll fail either.

Life was simpler as a kid. There were clear answers to everything. There was clear demarcation between what was right and what was wrong. Any kind of uncertainty or ambiguity was unheard of. As adults, we fail to outgrow this conditioning. We believe there is only one right answer to every question that has already been discovered by someone smarter than us—some adult. That’s one way to go about living. To be honest, it isn’t much fun.

If we explore only well-trodden paths and avoid games we don’t know how to play, we’ll remain stagnant. Only when you’re dancing in the dark, only when you are uncertain where the light switch is—or if any light switch is there at all—can progress begin.

Having said that, it’s not that simple. In the face uncertainty, we often manufacture excuses for not getting started. “I’m not qualified. I don’t feel ready. I don’t have the right contacts. I don’t have enough time.” We often don’t start until we find an approach that’s guaranteed to work. More than often, the wait is long.

Uncertainty can be scary. But one thing is for sure. For curious folks such as scientists, inventors, and adventurers, stumbling around in the dark is far more interesting than sitting outside in well-lit corridors. Inculcating this attitude may not be easy. It needs not only a love for adventure, but also a good dose of humility.

Richard Feynman is the epitome of this attitude. Even after he earned his Nobel Prize, he thought of himself as a “confused ape” and approached everything around him with the same level of curiosity, which enabled him to see nuances that others dismissed. “I think it’s much more interesting to live not knowing than to have answers which might be wrong,” he remarked.

Admitting ignorance doesn’t mean remaining oblivious to facts wilfully. Instead, it requires a conscious effort to become fully aware of what you don’t know so that you can focus on it to learn and grow.

When we figure out what we know and what we don’t know, we contain uncertainty and reduce the fear associated with it. You can do this simply by asking yourself, “What’s the worst-case scenario? And how likely is that scenario, given what I know?”

It’s not enough to just think about the answers. Writing down your concerns—what you know and what you don’t know—undresses them. Once you lift the curtain and turn the unknown unknowns into known unknowns, you defang them. After you see your fears with their masks off, you find that the feeling of uncertainty is far worse than your fear of the worst-case scenario.

But don’t forget the upside. In addition to considering the worst-case scenario, also ask yourself, “What’s the best that can happen?” Our negative thoughts resonate far more than our positive ones do. As psychologist Rick Hanson remarks, “The brain is like Velcro for the negative but Teflon for the positive.”

Unless you consider the best-case scenario along with the worst, your brain will steer you toward the seemingly safest path—inaction. But as a Chinese proverb goes, many a false step was made by standing still. Take the first step into the unknown. Don’t merely walk into the dark room, dance your way into it. Turn uncertainty into a game. That’s what scientists do all the time.

Certainty, as we commonly believe, isn’t the cornerstone of scientific knowledge. When scientists make statements, the question is not whether it is true or false but rather how likely it is to be true or false. Absolutes are rejected in favour of a spectrum, and uncertainty is institutionalised. As Richard Feynman explains, “Scientific knowledge is a body of statements of varying degrees of certainty—some most unsure, some nearly sure, none absolutely certain.”

You see, absolute certainty—in science, in business, and in life—is a mirage. We’re required to base our opinions on imperfect information and make decisions with sketchy data every day. Some part of the room is always gonna remain dark, and we can never be certain about the outcomes. More than certainty, we therefore need enquiry: how likely is our decision to be right or wrong.

If I have to be completely honest, it’s comforting that there isn’t a definitive answer to every question asked. There’s always more than one right way to land on Mars, more than one right way to write a book, and more than one right strategy for scaling a business—each better than the other. This means there’s always some adventure out there—in the form of some untrodden path, some unresolved mystery, and some unproven theorem.

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