I have always been fascinated by the unknown. The thrill of starting a new chapter in life. The unpredictability that comes with learning a new skill. The challenge to transcend the ambiguities. Over the years, I’ve come across many depictions of the joys and sorrows of life’s unpredictability. Here are thirteen thought-provoking quotes on uncertainty — and perhaps a bonus piece of wisdom. Who knows?
1. The Turkey and the Swan
Black Swan events could be considered the mother of all uncertainty. They are rare. Nobody expects or even thinks of them. But when they do happen the consequences are severe. The worst part is that they look obvious in hindsight.
Consider a turkey that is fed every day. Every single feeding will firm up the bird’s belief that it is the general rule of life to be fed every day by friendly members of the human race “looking out for its best interests,” as a politician would say. On the afternoon of the Wednesday before Thanksgiving, something unexpected will happen to the turkey. It will incur a revision of belief.Nassim Nicholas Taleb, The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable
2. The Perils of Rethinking
With so much uncertainty around, it’s no surprise we’re not exactly thrilled to add to it voluntarily. For example by changing our minds about something:
Some psychologists point out that we’re mental misers: we often prefer the ease of hanging on to old views over the difficulty of grappling with new ones. Yet there are also deeper forces behind our resistance to rethinking. Questioning ourselves makes the world more unpredictable. It requires us to admit that the facts may have changed, that what was once right may now be wrong. Reconsidering something we believe deeply can threaten our identities, making it feel as if we’re losing a part of ourselves.—Adam Grant, Think Again: The Power of Knowing What You Don’t Know
3. Reducing Uncertainty
Whole professions have formed around the reduction of uncertainty. Intelligence analysts in business, law enforcement, the military and national security deal with it for a living.
Judgment is an integral part of all intelligence analysis. While the optimal goal of intelligence collection is complete knowledge, this goal is seldom reached in practice. Almost by definition of the intelligence mission, intelligence issues involve considerable uncertainty. Thus, the analyst is commonly working with incomplete, ambiguous, and often contradictory data. The intelligence analyst’s function might be described as transcending the limits of incomplete information through the exercise of analytical judgment.Richards J. Heuer, Psychology of Intelligence Analysis
4. Finding a Beginning
The uncertainty of starting something new can be unbearable. What happens if I fail? Or worse: What happens if I succeed? Though that must not keep us from getting started.
Options reveal themselves after starting. If you feel uncertain in the beginning — join the club. Nobody starts with all the answers. The path to the summit is not fully visible from base camp.James Clear
Uncertainty can be paralysing. In Samuel Beckett’s absurd play Waiting for Godot, the protagonists Vladimir and Estragon are waiting for a mysterious man. They don’t know who he is. They don’t know when he will show up. Or if at all. Yet they’re biding their time. Until the play ends.
Vladimir: Well? Shall we go?
Estragon: Yes, let’s go.
They do not move.
Curtain.Samuel Beckett, Waiting for Godot
Decision-making can be a pain. Indecision caused by uncertainty might be a reason for lack of action. The truth is, that uncertainty arises no matter what option we choose. Here’s philosopher and angel investor Naval Ravikant with one of the most valuable quotes on uncertainty.
When you choose something, you get locked in for a long time. Starting a business may take ten years. You start a relationship that will be five years or maybe more. You move to a city for ten to twenty years. These are very, very long-lived decisions. It’s very, very important we only say yes when we are pretty certain. You’re never going to be absolutely certain, but you’re going to be very certain.
If you find yourself creating a spreadsheet for a decision with a list of yes’s and nos, pros and cons, checks and balances, why this is good or bad…forget it. If you cannot decide, the answer is no.Naval Ravikant, The Almanack of Naval Ravikant
7. Action and Inaction
There’s a simple secret to overcoming uncertainty-induced paralysis. Paradoxically it’s not only the solutions but also the cause of inaction in the first place.
Inaction breeds doubt and fear. Action breeds confidence and courage. If you want to conquer fear, do not sit home and think about it. Go out and get busy.Dale Carnegie
8. Weaponising Uncertainty
Uncertainty is an integral part of life. We don’t seem to react to it very well, which is why we might want to be aware of how sometimes, we humans weaponise uncertainty.
All warfare is based on deception. […] If your opponent is temperamental, seek to irritate him. Pretend to be weak, that he may grow arrogant. If he is taking his ease, give him no rest. If his forces are united, separate them. If sovereign and subject are in accord, put division between them. Attack him where he is unprepared, appear where you are not expected.Sun Tzu, The Art of War
9. Cultivating Unpredictability
This kind of behaviour is not limited to war either. It’s an everyday phenomenon. Sometimes it’s merely a matter of how we portray ourselves.
Humans are creatures of habit with an insatiable need to see familiarity in other people’s actions. Your predictability gives them a sense of control. Turn the tables: Be deliberately unpredictable. Behavior that seems to have no consistency or purpose will keep them off-balance and they will wear themselves out trying to explain your moves. Taken to an extreme, this strategy can intimidate and terrorize.Robert Greene, The 48 Laws of Power
10. Imaginative Suffering
The Stoics had their own particular way of dealing with uncertainty. The philosophy is characterised by radical dismissal of anything out of our control. And the only thing in our control is our own minds and actions.
We suffer more often in imagination than in reality.Seneca
11. Deep Nonsense
Good scientists make uncertainty part of the fun of scientific inquiry. Astronomer Carl Sagan had some of the best analogies for how scientific inquiry works:
At the heart of science is an essential balance between two seemingly contradictory attitudes — an openness to new ideas, no matter how bizarre or counterintuitive they may be, and the most ruthless skeptical scrutiny of all ideas, old and new. This is how deep truths are winnowed from deep nonsense.Carl Sagan, The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark
12. The Power of Uncertainty
In the scientist’s mindset, uncertainty is a blessing in disguise.
It is necessary and true that all of the things we say in science, all of the conclusions, are uncertain, because they are only conclusions. They are guesses as to what is going to happen, and you cannot know what will happen, because you have not made the most complete experiments.Richard Feynman
13. Foolish Love?
When we fall in love, uncertainty is part of what makes it so exciting. Flirting is essentially a game of knowing and not-knowing, It can be tempting to indulge ourselves in this thrilling state forever.
Until I know this sure uncertainty,William Shakespeare, The Comedy of Errors
I’ll entertain the offered fallacy.
BONUS: World of Words
We live in a world of ambiguities. It’s a world of our own creation. The more we try to resolve those contradictions, the more we look for intellectual certainty, and the less likely we are to find it.
We are all bewitched by words. We confuse them with the real world, and try to live in the real world as if it were the world of words. As a consequence, we are dismayed and dumbfounded when they do not fit.
The more we try to live in the world of words, the more we feel isolated and alone, the more all the joy and liveliness of things is exchanged for mere certainty and security.
On the other hand, the more we are forced to admit that we actually live in the real world, the more we feel ignorant, uncertain, and insecure about everything.Alan Watts, The Wisdom of Insecurity
I hope you enjoyed our thirteen-plus-one quotes on uncertainty. I tried to be as unpredictably predictable as possible. If you’re interested in more wise quotes, check out my posts on Naval Ravikant and Alan Watts, or learn how to become an aphorist.