The world today feels incredibly uncertain, and for good reason. According to the World Uncertainty Index, just economic and political uncertainty alone has been on the rise for decades. Technology creates even more turbulence, introducing both disruption but also vulnerability as illustrated by crises in once stable sectors like banking and transportation.
The real dilemma is that despite that despite living a world of uncertainty, few of us have been taught how to face that uncertainty well. As a result, we fall into well-documented traps, like threat-rigidity and anxiety. The good news is that research shows that you can improve your ability to face uncertainty and that those who do are better leaders, strategists, and entrepreneurs.
The real question is how? I’ve been on a decades long quest to develop a “uncertainty science,” or the tools and frameworks for a dynamic world. As my co-author (Susannah Harmon Furr) and I interviewed leaders, innovators, creators, and Nobel-prize winners we noticed that to do anything new, they had to first face uncertainty. Think for a moment of your own achievements. Most likely those triumphs came only after you first faced uncertainty. Or consider the uncertainty that happens to you—the unplanned uncertainty—which can be terrifying, heartbreaking, and painful. Have you noticed how some people seem to pull a possibility from the ashes nonetheless?
After studying these innovators and leaders we came to the simple conclusion that others have observed before: uncertainty and possibility are really two sides of the same coin. You can’t have possibility without facing uncertainty and every uncertainty has a possibility hidden in it. What we studied are the tools to face that uncertainty well, arriving at 42 tools, which we can use as individuals and leaders to build our uncertainty ability. That’s good news—there are many tools—but it can be overwhelming.
For that reason, we organized these tools around a metaphor of a “first-aid” cross for uncertainty, with four categories of things to do to face the unknown: reframe, prime, do and sustain. We did a deep dive on these ideas in our work on The Upside of Uncertainty to help individuals and leaders increase what we naturally call their “uncertainty ability”—the skill to navigate unknowns both planned (such as starting a new venture or leaving a job) and unplanned (such as losing a job, experiencing a health crisis, or going through a relationship breakdown). Reframe is about identifying both the uncertainty and the possibility in any situation. Prime captures the tools to prepare in advance so you are more robust in the face of uncertainty. Do is about taking action, but research shows there are better ways than others to step into the unknown. And Sustain is about becoming resilient in the face of surprises and setback.
One highlight that may help you immediately to better face today’s uncertain world comes from the sustain section. One of the most powerful tools comes from the domain of positive psychology, and the work of Martin Seligman which started as research into learned helplessness. In what would now be a controversial study, Seligman put dogs into an enclosed chamber where they received electric shocks. When they opened the chamber so that the dogs could escape by hopping a low barrier, to their surprise, the dogs wouldn’t budge. In fact, researchers had to drag the dogs across the barrier, sometimes 7-8 times before they learned they could escape on their own. This effect was so powerful that Seligman and colleagues decided to study it in humans.
But then they discovered the second surprise! Unlike the dogs, there is a group of people who refuse to learn to be helpless. Seligman and team were so curious they spent careers investigating what is now called learned optimism. Essentially, they argues that pessimism and optimism are learned explanatory styles we use to interpret the world. In short, when something bad happens, pessimists interpret it as 1) permanent, 2) pervasive (meaning it applies to all aspects of their life), and 3) personal. As a result, setbacks become catastrophic. For example, when laid off, a pessimist feels like it is permanent (e.g., “I will always be layoff material”), pervasive (e.g., “I must not be good enough in most areas of my life”), and personal (e.g., “it’s my fault, I’m incapable”). By contrast, an optimist does the opposite, seeing whatever happens as 1) temporary (e.g., “I’ll soon find work”), 2) localized (e.g., “I lost my job but I’m great other areas of my life”), and 3) not personal (e.g., “the company made some bad decisions growing too quickly, too bad they lost out on me!). Not surprisingly events are de-catastrophized!
This turns out to be an immensely useful tool for facing uncertainty since, by definition, we don’t know how it will turn out. Inevitably there will be surprises, setbacks, even “failures.” If you can use the learned optimism tool to help yourself or your team reinterpret the uncertainty, it will liberate energy from anxiety to do actual work towards making the situation better. For example, we were recently with a newly appointed CEO of a major retail organization. With war and inflation, the results are terrible and she was, without realizing it, interpreting the setback as permanent, pervasive, and personal. All we did is help her argue with how this could be different. She just took over as CEO. She couldn’t have foreseen the downturn (i.e., not personal), recessions don’t last forever (i.e., not permanent), and surely not everything was terrible (i.e., not pervasive). As we spoke, her face brightened and she had renewed energy to lead herself and her teams to do the same thing in the future. Hopefully this helps you to face whatever uncertainty brings your way.