#8: voluntary uncertainty

the lowercase christmas issue

hello, I’m vaughn tan. you’re getting this email because you subscribed to my newsletter about uncertainty in work and daily life. the format is evolving and the ideas may be only partially baked.

here in london, it’s sunny and clear on christmas day, and i’m getting the feeling that some people have given up worrying about how uncertain the future is. or maybe they’ve just become unable to recognize the uncertainty.

take brexit, for instance. with a deal, brexit is a source of great economic uncertainty for everyone. without a deal, that uncertainty is compounded considerably. will there be a deal or not, and if there is a deal, what will it be?—let’s call this meta-uncertainty. politics in the uk adds a layer of uncertainty on top of that. until the election on december 12, there was an open question about whether corbyn or johnson would lead parliament, and thus whether there would be another referendum about the deal (or about brexit) or johnson’s deal—meta-meta-uncertainty.

this last election was a non-event in london. it came as no surprise that the conservatives had returned to power and labour had performed abysmally. but at least it peeled off that top layer of uncertainty. next day, the pound strengthened, the stock market bounced up, and three real estate agents emailed me to say that there would be no better time to buy than Right Now because, next year after the election and an orderly brexit, london house prices would undoubtedly shoot up again.


[half-baked] above a certain threshold, our ability to perceive and manage uncertainty seem to vanish. when one layer of uncertainty is removed from the situation, it feels like the sword of damocles has been taken away. a sigh of relief though, in truth, the sword dangles on. this misjudgment may be because people now are gripped by uncertainty fatigue. they are exposed to too much uncertainty, and it overwhelms because they are insufficiently practiced at recognizing and dealing with it.

it’s clear that not everyone has mistaken this reduction in uncertainty for elimination of uncertainty. if you are looking for them, there are signs of people and organizations preparing for post-brexit dislocation by hedging against changes in regulations, commerce, and citizenship. some examples:

  • in the usual end of year catching up with people you’ve not seen for months, more and more mention of staff and functions being relocated to europe, especially among those in finance.

  • several people i know have moved a lot of their cash on hand into euros because the products and ingredients they work with originate in the EU.

  • in the news recently: extremely wealthy UK citizens are buying maltese citizenship, which can be done (for a price) without the requirement of being physically resident—convenient for the globetrotting plutocrat. guy verhofstadt’s comment on this: “Conservative party donors, backing Brexit but at the same time seeking EU citizenship via Cyprus. Pardon my French but ordinary British citizens are being screwed over by their elite.”

  • friends (without €1.2m for a maltese golden passport) have relocated themselves to various EU countries to acquire residency, as a precursor to obtaining EU citizenship.

if you have spare resources—money, time, flexibility to move—to spend in these ways, this is undoubtedly the best approach to take in the face of brexit uncertainty. uncertainty planning like this may be entirely useless or incredibly useful, but there’s no way to know before brexit. and the resources spent need to be spare because uncertainty preparedness is fundamentally different from risk preparedness. preparing for risk looks efficient and carefully calculated; preparing for uncertainty looks hare-brained, wasteful, and inefficient.

why do some people and organizations manage to see uncertainty clearly enough to decide to spend resources wastefully preparing for it? my sense is that they are the ones who have had enough practice at seeing and working through uncertainty to not be overwhelmed by it.

getting this kind of practice is easier for people who aren’t solely responding to uncertainty that’s imposed on them by force—like brexit has been imposed on people in the UK.

true uncertainty can be so viscerally terrifying that it helps to start with a small and comparatively innocuous instance of it before moving into the big leagues. one way to do this is to voluntarily choose to subject yourself to not knowing what will happen or how you should respond. this practice of voluntary uncertainty can range from choosing to drink wine with lots of bottle variation (see issues #6 and #7), to moving to an unfamiliar neighborhood in the same city, to relocating to a different country, to switching careers late in life.

the key to voluntary uncertainty is that you get to choose its nature and timing. this means being able to start with uncertainty that is small and manageable before scaling up—and also being able to take on this uncertainty at a time when you have the emotional and other resources needed to manage it.

over time and with exposure to progressively more uncertain situations, it becomes easier to deal with (possibly even to enjoy) the kind of visceral terror that comes with being exposed to uncertainty. not being captive to purely visceral reactions to uncertainty, it is easier to process it cognitively, to reason about it. this is what makes it possible to recognize and think clearly about uncertainty that is imposed upon you by force and to take reasonable actions to manage it.

this is not just for individuals: some of the organizations i work with are doing it too. the teams that are most successful at innovating and adapting to change are the ones which have trained themselves to manage not knowing what to do or how to do it. they’ve done this mostly without specifically intending to do uncertainty training. instead, they started by taking on small projects which were beyond their ability, gradually scaling up to more and more ambitiously un-doable projects over many years. eventually, the people who work in these teams begin to treat not-knowing as a default state. uncertainty goes from being the cause of uncontrollable terror to a source of productive desperation. (there will be more about what i call desperation by design in The Uncertainty Mindset…)

voluntary uncertainty can be a kind of fitness regimen for developing the cognitive and emotional ability to deal with both voluntary and involuntary uncertainty. but voluntary uncertainty is difficult—it almost always looks like the wrong thing to do. and voluntary uncertainty can mess you up just as involuntary uncertainty can. we teach people how to take risks in many ways but there are hardly any systematic, socially acceptable ways to learn how to take uncertainties. we all need to do it, but most probably will not.

we’re in the middle of a fundamental change in the logic of work and life. as the world becomes both more complex and more interconnected, individuals and organizations will be confronted with more and more uncertainty. only those who know how to handle it are likely to survive and flourish.

🎄happy christmas! 🎄

🎶: tafelspitzmusik

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you can reach me on twitter @vaughn_tan, instagram @vaughn.tan, or by email at <uncertaintymindset@vaughntan.org>.