Making Space for Uncertainty

Exactitude French Poster 1929Not All Who Wander Are Lost. When I was a teenager, that bumpersticker favored by Lord of the Rings fans and New Agers didn’t strike me as profound or funny. Depression-era reality echoed down the generations of my family: Uncertainty is the enemy, and wandering doesn’t pay the rent.

In those years, Thoreau spoke to me, against a poster image of a sailboat at sea leaning into a moody sunset: “Go confidently in the direction of your dreams. Live the life you have imagined.”  The problem? Certainty is the enemy of dreams, not to mention imagination.

In my 20s, I grew confidently in the direction of perfectionism and fetishism. I named one of my early businesses No Loose Ends. Life became some version of porn, compelling but completely unsurprising. Novelty but not change. Movement but not growth. Lather. Rinse. Repeat.

Certainty was my virtue. I was productive, efficient and unequivocal. What can be measured can be managed. Control, we’re told as consumers, is empowerment. Power is a springboard to freedom—the f-word that unlocks the American dream.

Certainty as a habit of mind was my defense, a hand held up to vast possibilities I had no capacity or facility to entertain. The “Exactitude” poster, a French Deco classic from a fateful 1929, hung in my first office. But certainty was a brittle strength. Uncertainty was and is the messy thing that overflows.

Most of what we rely is actually up for grabs (as it actually always has been). Last night’s earthquake, a gentle rock-a-bye as I was falling asleep, was a good reminder.

As it always has been! But electricity, running water, concrete, fully-stocked grocery stores, mobile phones (etc.!) give me the impression that I’ve mastered daily life. Even if it’s impossible to solve the Big Questions, a full belly leaves less room to worry about it. This may be why I’ve always been so obsessed with stories—novels, short stories, films. Narratives can be ways to imagine and rehearse alternative futures and even break open history so it can move in different directions. Stories can get past emotional and psychological defenses that “facts” can’t.

My own ability to imagine “what if” is limited less by knowledge than fear—unconscious fear that doesn’t announce itself but nudges me back into cravings for routine comforts. Endless, unchanging loops of the known. Processes that make other people bobblehead in agreement. Same as it ever was.

Without uncertainty in the frame, my thinking goes awry. Risks seem greater than usual. Creativity shuts down. I tell myself that I’m in control but wonder why my knuckles are turning white? It’s a form of mind-body split. I don’t think I’m alone in it. Companies use this dissonance to sell us more stuff while politicians exploit it to start wars. (Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s concept of anti-fragility, things that benefit from volatility, is interesting here. Stay tuned for more on that.)

I’m still working at being more resilient. What’s clear is that by defending myself from considering alternative futures—and my agency in them—I also distance myself from what’s bubbling in my own unconscious. Dreams and the future. The two are not unrelated.

In 2006 I took a brief course in scenario planning, basically a business application of storytelling. Even after 2008, it’s a tough fit for businesspeople who are paralyzed by things they can’t measure. When I studied it, scenario planning was the ONLY business planning process that accounted for uncertainty. Astounding when you think about it. With one hand, we wave at the multiverse. With the other, we clutch at counting the stars.

Near the end of the course, I asked Kees van der Heijden, one of scenario planning’s big names, if the practice was as much psychological exercise as business strategy. Were the exercises really tools to help people gain a sense of familiarity with the very FACT of the unknown? He smiled and nodded.

An imagined future becomes a possible future (though not necessarily a likely one). And while more space for what’s possible sounds wonderful in that rational part of the mind, contingency makes us squirm. It threatens the way things are, and if the way things are is good for you, you stand to lose. But, to paraphrase another bumpersticker, shit will happen. And standing too firmly against that inevitability can get very messy indeed.

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Want more? – an open community devoted to scenario thinking and planning

Scenarios: The Art of Strategic Conversation by Kees van der Heijden

Nassim Nicholas Taleb, author of INCERTO (Antifragile, The Black Swan, Fooled by Randomness, and The Bed of Procrustes) an “investigation of opacity, luck, uncertainty, probability, human error, risk, and decision making when we don’t understand the world”

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