on living in uncertainty

Lately, I had lunch with a very good friend. We have not met for quite some time, due to known sanitary travel restrictions. As always during Fashion Week in Paris, we found ourselves on a well known terrace in the north of the Marais having burgers and beer. After a few minutes of gossip about ParisFashionWeek events, who looked how, and actual garments, we were heading to the real talk:
Feeling somehow trapped in a never-changing, or even worse, unchangeable system. One that would loudly cry out for innovation, change, inclusivity, diversity or sustainability, without critically wanting or realistically being able to implement them.

Change means fully embracing uncertainty

We came to the conclusion that at present, most systems (finance, education, even personal relations et cetera) are predominantly inclined to function based on certainty, that there has to be one right answer and many wrong ones (Martin, 2020). This answer could be the need for steady growth for our economic system to work, or that there are 9 planets in our solar system (at least until Pluto has been downgraded to a dwarf planet), and however one may define love to be true… There is unfortunately not much space for nuances based on arguments, for “maybes,” or for “it depends.” 
We did not say that there are never any right answers and that everything always depends on something… But then, on the other hand, we somehow did…

Inquiry is fatal to certainty

Despite humanity’s long and painful history of being shown to be wrong about what was previously held to be a certainty, we keep on teaching models as if they were not models but rather reality. The only real thing about them is that they are the best interpretation of reality one has been able to come up with yet. Instead, we must, at all levels, teach and live by the idea that all models are, or at least could be, totally wrong, otherwise they wouldn’t be models in the first place (Martin, 2020).

We both agreed on the facts. My friend however did not feel ready to take on such a radical point of view as a basic lifestyle. He felt it to be “too real”, too uncertain, and that he’d go probably madder than to knowingly believe in false security. A very honest and amazingly self-aware position. Unlike certain education workers, who worry that accepting or being taught that there typically is no right answer would make one, especially kids, indecisive or confused. This has always been very strange to me, as students (and my friend) were already confused by the assumption that they would have learned the right answer, which proved to be wrong outside the classroom.
Research shows that in fact the opposite occurs: When taught “uncertainty to be the only thing certain”, students (and my friend) would become more confident in thinking their way through a complex and uncertain world, the one we are currently living in.

also read  On learning with mustard

Back to the Future is a movie

We need to understand and accept that it is ok to be unsure. It is the new normal to be unable to see the good or the bad side of things right away. There is no problem with sometimes not even seeing the thing it-self. Professor of strategy at HEC, Olivier Sibony, writes in his great book You’re about to make a terrible Mistake! :
“Defining good decisions and good decision makers by the results they will eventually achieve is circular, and therefore useless. If you are making decisions (or selecting people who will make them), you need to know what works (or who is good) before the results are in.
In practice, (…), there is no sure way, at the time of the decision is made, of telling who is good and who isn‘t. Even knowing whether an individual decision is „good“ or „bad“ would, by this definition of „good“, require an ability to read the future.”

Neither my friend, nor myself are able to read the future, but we are darn certain to be able to write it here and now. 

When More is Not Better

by Roger L. Martin

When More is Not Better

by Roger L. Martin

This article is based on our newsletter “thoughts&coffee” published on 15.10.2021  

read here