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Why Uncertainty Isn’t a Barrier to Success

Photo by Jens Lelie on Unsplash

Editor's Note:

Annie Duke is a World Series of Poker bracelet winner, the winner of the 2004 Tournament of Champions, and the only woman to win the NBC National Poker Heads Up Championship. As a professional speaker and decision strategist, she merges her poker expertise with her cognitive psychology graduate work at UPenn. She is a founder of How I Decide, a non-profit that creates curricula and tools to improve decision making and critical thinking skills for under-served middle schoolers.

As an admitted “uncertainty evangelist,” I realize I’m preaching a contrarian message. After all, popular opinion seems to be that uncertainty is a barrier to success, that certainty makes for good decisions. Embracing uncertainty as the way to better decision making does not come naturally to us.

We get indoctrinated early into the certainty cult, trained to believe that being certain is a virtue. Answer a test question in school, “I’m not sure,” and you’ll get it marked wrong. We are taught that others will see us as knowledgeable, forceful, and competent if we express our beliefs with certainty. We conflate expressions of certainty with confidence, strength, and decisiveness. We associate expressions of uncertainty with tentativeness, waffling, or hesitation.

No wonder we think of uncertainty as a barrier to success.

But here’s the deal: Taking a deeper dive into uncertainty reveals it is certainty that is the real enemy of success. Here’s why.

Expressing uncertainty more accurately represents the state of our knowledge. There are very few beliefs about which we can be 100% certain. There is just too much that we don’t (or can’t) know, and too many facts that we don’t have access to. Once we start talking about decisions involving events that have yet to occur, we’re making predictions. Those predictions can’t be 100% accurate because there is always the element of luck intervening in how the future unfolds. Even if we’re doing something simple, like driving through an intersection, we can’t be sure how it will turn out. We can run a red light and breeze through the intersection without even so much as a traffic ticket or we can wait for a green light to enter the intersection and someone t-bones us. If such simple things involve so much uncertainty, imagine more complex decisions involving our work, career, investments, or relationships. Uncertainty is simply a more accurate representation of the state of our beliefs about the world. And the more accurate our representation of the world, the better our decisions will be, resulting in a higher probability of success.

Acknowledging uncertainty makes us more open-minded. Our decisions are only as good as the beliefs that inform them. Ideally, the goal of someone who wants to make better decisions would be to ensure their beliefs were as accurate as possible. Executing on that goal requires a hunger to seek out new facts and opinions. It also requires that we be open-minded to new information, particularly when it disagrees with us. If we already think that we know something with absolute certainty, we won’t be motivated to learn more about the topic. Why would we make the effort to learn more about something that we are already sure of? If we are certain in a belief, we are much more likely to swat away opposing viewpoints. If we are already 100% sure, then any dissenting information must be wrong with that same 100% certainty. Case closed – mind closed. The result? Poorly vetted beliefs informing our decisions.

Expressing uncertainty invites collaboration. Communicating beliefs as absolutely certain (trying to project confidence) discourages others from sharing dissenting viewpoints. (This is especially devastating for anyone in a leadership position.) There are two reasons people might keep their views to themselves. First, they might be worried they are wrong and won’t speak up for fear of being embarrassed. Second, they might not speak up for fear that we are wrong and will be embarrassed or for fear they won’t be viewed as a team player. The viewpoints that disagree with us are the ones that are most helpful because they can fill in the gaps in our knowledge for us, offering different perspectives and suggesting alternative hypotheses. Conflating certainty with confidence discourages this kind of valuable collaboration.

When we moderate our expression of certainty, shifting from “I’m sure” to “this is how sure I am,” we open the door for people to share dissenting viewpoints, inviting them to become our collaborators. By expressing our views as probabilistic, we no longer declare ourselves “right.” That makes it easier for others to speak up because, when they offer their viewpoint, it doesn’t make them (or us) wrong.

Recognizing uncertainty helps us be more effective scenario-planners. The future is necessarily uncertain, so we are better off if our predictions about the future reflect that uncertainty. The person willing to acknowledge that we can’t ever be sure of how things will turn out naturally considers a broader and more complete basket of alternative scenarios – including futures where things don’t go our way. Better scouting of the future leads to a more accurate view of the landscape that lies ahead allowing us to more effectively anticipate possible bumps in the road. We will spend less time reacting to unexpected outcomes because fewer outcomes will be unexpected. What follows are more effective strategic plans that reduce the probability of bad outcomes and increase the probability of good ones. Embracing uncertainty increases the chance of success simply because we have considered a wide range of possible outcomes rather than the singular certain future we are hoping for.

Embracing uncertainty enhances our prospects for success in so many ways: more accurate beliefs, more open-mindedness, better collaboration, better scenario planning. Embrace uncertainty along with me. The road to better decisions starts when we say, “I’m not sure.”