I just completed a brief interview on uncertainty, and I don’t think my answer was as precise as it could be. So I thought I would write out the answer here.
Hope is a fact but certainty is a myth. Through the construct of hope, people may believe that things are stable or certain, but they never are. From the demise of marriages to untimely deaths, to the loss of a job to the default of a large corporation, uncertainty has always, and will always, pervade our world.
Uncertainties aren’t stable. We often tradeoff one for another. People harken back to the economic boom of American dominance following World War II and think about that as a period of economic stability. But that economic stability was a trade-off for the uncertainty of nuclear war. As a child, I ducked and covered under laminate desks that had no radiation protection rating. Our fear of the Soviet Union lead to a daily existential uncertainty about our very existence. We watched with concerned attention to Walter Cronkite reported that the Union of Concerned Scientists Doomsday Clock made another intrepid tick toward midnight. All of this as government and private investment created new arms, the space program and all manner of products derived from oil refining by-products (plastics) to consumer electronics. Today we don’t pay attention to the Doomsday Clock, but rather to our eroding 401Ks and other investments. We worry more about inept financial management in Greece than who holds the keys to Russia’s nuclear arsenal. And this uncertainty makes headlines as an uncertainty because we have no countervailing positive uncertainty to offset it.
Because the world is a dynamic system, we will shift this uncertainty for another at some point in the future. That is perhaps the only certain thing we can say: another uncertainty will bubble forth to challenge our assumptions about the previous one. As we return from the brink of financial disaster or the throws of financial ruin, will technology displacement become the uncertainty de jour. Will the underlying question of how we read catapult to the forefront of consciousness? And if it does, unlike more existential threats, the headlines about uncertainty will fade to the back of magazines and newspapers because they are smaller, less important, perhaps more evolutionary or incremental uncertainties. Of course how we read will change, that we deliver textbooks in Kno or Inkling or Kindle format matters only to a few. Will uncertainty be relegated to backchannel conversations because some new environmental or economic euphoria generates a positive bubble of myth long enough that it appears to be stable to most people?
Uncertainty is a headline today because the uncertainty we face affects so many people in such a fundamental way. During my interview I talked about the uncertainties that faced the Roman Empire as they broke apart, converted and eventually faded into history; or the Sovereign powers of Europe as nobles and common people asserted their rights over the divine right of rule; or as political realities forced out manifest destiny in favor of self-determination.
Perhaps we can see the influence of uncertainty most profoundly in the one uncertainty that we all share: what happens after death. That uncertainty has spawned many religions and philosophies. Even those who believe that nothing happens after death have their own set of platforms. Uncertainty is a powerful agent of change when it is named and when people engage in looking at possible ways it will play out. Religion is the ultimate set of scenarios against the ultimate uncertainty.
So that today uncertainty appears in so many headlines is not a surprise to those who practice naming uncertainty.
To move forward, we need to be precise about naming uncertainty so we can imagine and explore possible ways that uncertainty will play out, how it will influence and be influenced by other uncertainties. Most importantly, because if we don’t name an uncertainty, we can’t talk about it all. Vague descriptions of an uncertain future offer no insight.
We need to look forward, to eliminate the backward harkening dialog that dreams of returning to stability and embrace uncertainty as a given. Then we need to start envisioning futures that describe the trade-offs necessary to balance our uncertainties in a way that eases us away from ruin, but not by reconstructing the myth that the future is certain. No, the best path to agility is that we become constantly observant and hyper-adaptive to change by implementing personal, organizational and societal feedback loops that emphasize learning. By doing this we remove the myth and confront the reality of change in a constructive manner. At that point the headlines about uncertainties will give way to instructive stories about the future, supported by dialog and action that moves us forward. We must remain vigilant in seeing that that any choice may not turn out as we predict, and that despite our best efforts, our best defense is not invoking our intelligence to perpetuate a myth stability, but to admit that we don’t know something and to adapt to the moment. By adapting to uncertainty today we give ourselves the opportunity to confront it, and adapt to it again, tomorrow.