Two Ways Of Adapting To Uncertainty
“What am I doing tonight?”
“Is what I’m doing at work really useful?”
“What is likely to happen on this or that market I have a keen interest in?”
A chaotic world is hugely characterized by uncertainty. If you start asking yourself some questions, even seemingly trivial ones about someone coming or not to the afterwork or about a new guy at the bank handling a complicated order, you start imagining less than desirable outcomes. Perhaps the individual that may or may not come will bring someone else who’s going to ruin the party. Perhaps the new guy at the bank will forget a key piece of information, or another link in the chain will fail and you won’t receive your money in time, and so on. As a small voice within your head might say, “you never know if…”
The Costs of Uncertainty
Sometimes, uncertainty is undoubtedly our friend. DJs are more entertaining when you cannot predict their musical choices too tightly. Movies where every move can be predicted tend to be boring. More importantly, the very removal of religious, political, cultural… coercion and of its associated certainty allowed for a tremendous economic growth and a blossoming creativity. Such is the history of modern and contemporary times.
But uncertainty also has costs. They are hard to ascertain precisely, chaos-related matters having a natural tendency to spill over any boundaries. So far, I found useful to put them under five heads:
1. Stress. This is the most obvious consequence of ongoing uncertainty. When something is “on you”, and especially when it is beyond your immediate power but still related to you, it is stressful. You cannot decide to make the subway quicker, but if you’re late, it’s on you. A client may pay too late, and when this happens, your bank will force you into paying late fees, not the client. Sometimes, even after a good working day, you find yourself full of accumulated tension, which has to be relieved or you won’t have a good night sleep.
2. Extended buyer’s remorse. You bought a laptop. Then you notice its core runs too hot, and you buy external coolers so it doesn’t melt. The laptop is great at home, although it is unpractical to bring. Then, when you have to give a talk, you have to borrow someone else’s laptop to present the associated PowerPoint. Why did I buy this model? I should have bought… or perhaps… or perhaps… now replace “laptop” by any car, set of clothes, or even by the course of studies you chose and you can always feel this remorse. Other people who chose other options seem to do better. Somehow, you may always feel like you’ve made the wrong choice. I’ve been fooled by optionality and now I can’t go backwards. Haven’t I failed?!
3. A lack of clear ethical standards and a subsequent lack of trust. The author of this post has already written a longer piece on the gnawing issue of ethics. In the past, societies where several cultures or communities—who valued different things and had clearly different standards—coexisted tended to solve any issue by territorialism. To each his or her own as long as one remains within one’s usually narrow boundaries. Now, there are no such boundaries, and as a result, the worldview, belief system, behaviors… of other individuals have become opaque and mysterious. We have ceased to see “the soul behind” most people’s faces, to quote Rudyard Kipling. How, then, could we trust them?
4. Procrastination. This may seem like a trivial issue, but it is not. Entire blog empires have turned bored employees into major ad wealth. When you face a task that seem too daunting, or a set of tasks that you don’t know how to properly filter or organize, the simplest choice lies in postponing. Now, why not check your Facebook feed, and click that funny cat video, and…? In the end, you “wake up” after having lost valuable time and lacking focus and motivation. If you were more certain about what must be done and how to do it, kitty videos would be less tempting.
5. An excess of short term thinking. The most uncertain long-range prospects are, the more is invested into short-range ventures. You are way more likely to know, or at least guess on a reasonable basis, what you’re going to do next week or next month than in 5 years. Nineteenth century railroads were built because investors knew companies would operate within a relatively stable environment. The more something takes time to build, the more it needs long-term stability.
All this may be pinpointed, thoroughly analyzed and sometimes complained about. Still: these costs are likely to remain with us. Individuals want to tap from their potential, to do this, to try that, to travel here and there… as the chaos theory pioneer David Ruelle noticed, “the more oscillators there are and the more interconnection there is between them, the readier we should be to see chaos.” In other words, the very desires and wills everyone carries on are also the first source of uncertainty around. One simply cannot escape it—which means one has to learn how to remain atop.
Natural Answers To Uncertainty
Now there is a comment you may have thought of already. Namely, why is uncertainty such a problem? Our oldest ancestors evolved in a world way riskier than ours. Ancient times were rife with wars, upheavals and bloody conflicts. There were no global companies and, in many cases, no police. Political entities like the Roman Empire and their associated pax were an exception, built in the course of entire centuries.
Thus, while contemporary conditions may be absolutely unique, uncertainty itself isn’t that new and we should be somehow naturally attuned to it. Our very choices contribute to global uncertainty, which means it was already within us before spilling out there. Nature, this rugged mother of humanity that was already full of fractal geometry way before mathematicians found out, is within our very marrow.
How do we spontaneously answer to uncertainty? What do we want to do, before loads of unfiltered information, i.e. noise, hundreds of suggestions and other seemingly unlimited options try to sway us? Take away the learning, the noise, the cultural layers: how would you react to chaos?
This is where the Myers-Briggs personality Type Indicator, or MBTI, steps in. Based on psychanalyst Carl Jung’s work on psychological archetypes and on much quantitative work, the MBTI coalesces the diversity of personalities into a limited number of clusters. More precisely, everyone’s mind spans on the following pairs of opposites:
- Extroverted vs Introverted
- Sensation vs iNtuition
- Thinking vs Feeling
- Judgmental vs Perceptive
All of these couples are also continuums. To express it quantitatively, on a continuum between 100% Introverted and 100% Extroverted, one may be 60 % I and 40% E, which would make him an Introverted, although less so than someone being 90% I and 10% E. No one is entirely E or I: everyone has more or less of one’s lesser, or seemingly opposite, character.
Character is important because it affects what we like or dislike, what we mostly look for or let aside, what we choose and how we fit even within an uncertain world. Of the four pairs of opposites above, the last one is the most relevant. For the most Judgmental or Perceptive one tends to be, the most one will spontaneously answer uncertainty by one of the two ways below rather than the other.
The Judgmental Answer: Tighten The Screws!
To the typical Judgmental individual, global uncertainty has taken an excessive importance because we have let it grow excessively. The better way to cope with it lies in putting it at bay, only venturing on the dark waters of the barely known currents when necessary and with at least one particular aim in mind. Otherwise, better tighten the screws.
Psychologist David Keirsey, at the end of his book Please Understand Me II, describes the Judgmental individuals are “Schedulers.” Here Judgment does not necessarily equate with prejudice—although J types may become more and more prejudiced with age if they do not take care—but with the emphasis on decision-making. J types feel more at ease with
mak[ing] and keep[ing] schedules in their daily lives… Schedulers make agendas, timetables, programs, lists, syllabi, calendars, outlines, registers, and so on, for themselves and others to follow…
This habit and ease comes with a strong tendency to value work as well:
Schedulers, whether observant or introspective, tend to believe that one’s work comes before all else, and must be finished before one rests or plays. This strict work ethic has a marked effect on what they will do to get the job done. They tend to establish deadlines and to take them seriously, expecting others to do the same.
It also goes together with a low toleration for disorder, especially at one’s place:
Schedulers tend to be neat and orderly. They like their desk at work to be tidy, and their house picked up—dishes done, bed made, car washed, and so on. Not that they always manage all of these chores, but they are unhappy when their personal space is a mess, and straightening things up is often near the top of their list.
J types tend to tolerate less uncertainty and ambiguity than their Perceptive counterparts. They often seem less flexible, and some even say that uniforms suit J types better. J types will follow a routine more easily, espouse it more easily, and be less reluctant to enforce rules.
On face value, J types may look less adapted to a chaotic world. But such a psychological makeup has advantages as well. J leaders are especially apt at maintaining a particular course even when things get tough or move fast. They can also be less affected by uncertainty because they’ve done a good job at putting it aside: giving less importance to unusual information or to what is (too) uncertain, they find it easier to steer the course of their lives.
The Perceptive Answer: Keep The Screws As Loosened As You Can
Perception, on the other hand, means an emphasis on “prob[ing] for options and thus not be[ing] tied to a schedule”. Keirsey calls P types “probers”, or individuals who remain “perceptive of options”:
Probers keep their eyes open for chances to do things they want to do, for opportunities and alternatives that might be available to them… Probers seem more playful about their work. The job doesn’t have to be finished before play or rest begins, and they tend to look upon deadlines as mere alarm clocks which buzz at a given time… almost as if the deadline were used more as a signal to start than to complete a project. Also, Probers are much more insistent than the work be enjoyable and to the purpose.
One of my advices, “follow your own path, which may be quite different from the path of others, but follow it well!” seem to echo one of Keirsey’s items:
Probers… have a much greater tolerance for disorder in their physical environment. They seem absorbed in whatever they’re doing or thinking about at the moment, and are somewhat oblivious to the details of housekeeping. And so their personal spaces are often cluttered with a variety of objects they have picked up, used, and then dropped when they have finished with them.
P types tend to be more creative and even tricksterish than their counterparts. If some untapped potential lies within chance, with a weird experiment, or something like this, the one who will do the probing is likely to be Perceptive.
P types come with their own strengths and weaknesses. On paper, Ps are better suited to do the exploring and everything properly creative, to find new overtures, whereas Js would fit better in finishing whatever project or road has been opened first. (In real life, things tend to be a bit messier.) Ps may seem fitter to an uncertain, chaotic world. Without doubt, P types may have a lower risk of intolerance and xenophobia, and the typical P playfulness may work wonders, but Ps are also at a higher risk of procrastinating or abandoning something mid-road because the impetus of novelty has dried up.
Equilibrium: Invest In The Opposite
So far these two ways can be used to describe what we naturally do. If you are a programmer, would you rather fix a given problem quickly, compare different ways to fix the given problem, or do you easily forget about the problem and come up with new functionalities to replace the problematic one?
The course of action is not set in stone and what you will tend to do spontaneously reflects your inner being.
However, tightening-versus-loosening may also be used as conscious paths. One may use these ways, not as descriptions, but as a conscious set of rules or as a mindset to adopt.
Why so? Remember the Chinese yin and yang: each member of the couple holds a bit of the other within itself. You have no yin with a modicum of yang and vice versa. The same thing holds for being Judgmental or Perceptive. Even the most Judgmental individual has room for gathering information and postponing decision.
Whether you are mostly J or P, the worst risk lies in becoming too much of it. Excess begets imbalance, which in turn fosters fragility. In a chaotic world, you cannot be fragile. If you are into chronic, unconscious excess, chaos will never truly become your friend.
Thus, it is often advised to embrace the way of the other type.
If you are a Perceptive type, you should sometimes force yourself to follow some strict rules. Notorious flâneur and options specialist Nassim Taleb, who renewed the field of probabilities out of probing, follows the Christian Orthodox diet to mitigate health hazards and get the benefits of a time-tested, tried-and-proven recipe.
Likewise, Jewish agnostic A. J. Jacobs spent one year following every rule of the Bible literally for the sake of the experiment. An unlikely choice which produced positive changes, such as making him more generous, more sensitive to the sacred in general… and more focused on his work, as Biblical rules made him free, not to choose everything, but free from choice.
If you are a Judgmental type, you may consider doing things you don’t know about beforehand: take a trip to a foreign city you’ll choose two days before going there. Let other people around you do their own choices, and be silent, or playfully suggest instead of imposing what seems obvious. Perhaps J types are the ones who would benefit more from investing on stock markets, these chaotic places where optionality is so crucially important.
Adopting the “way of the other side” allows to mitigate many uncertainty-related problems. If you are Judgmental, getting consciously used to random, last-minute choices may make you more tolerant, more flexible, hence less stressed. If you are Perceptive, conscious long-term focus will help you to start soon enough and keep the pace instead of procrastinating.
Strength-based management has been fashionable for years now. While it is true that one’s particular talents often make the day, one should always remember not to get loose. No one wants to become an exaggerated version of one’s character. If you are “too” Perceptive, you may “see” many options yet not be able to work them out, and if you are “too” Judgmental, you may simply ignore the most interesting opportunities around.
As the MBTI creators could say, know what you are and know when to lean on one side. And if you feel like you don’t have time for the “other side”, why not hiring or listening to someone who has?
To know more about how to deal with uncertainty and how chaos theories help us to see options within change, check my book: Chaos, a User’s Guide, available here.