About This Episode
It’s been two years, but we are now slowly coming out of the pandemic. However, despite some sense of normalcy slowly returning in our everyday lives, all of us, as a nation and even worldwide, have lived with this uncertainty for a prolonged period of time, and it is hard to shake it off instantaneously. That’s why I love this episode of Brilliant Thoughts.
Our guest for this podcast episode is Susannah Furr, co-author, and wife of INSEAD professor Nathan Furr. They wrote the book aptly titled The Upside of Uncertainty: A Guide to Finding Possibility in the Unknown, and I think it is a very timely read.
A lot of us find it hard to deal with uncertainty. When going through these seasons in life, the anxiety that creeps in tends to make us feel overwhelmed. Some people go down a spiral of negative rumination that blows up the situation out of proportion. Susannah tells us, both in this podcast and in the book, that there is a power that can be found in uncertainty and in change, and the tools to deal with them are already available to us. We just have to recognize and utilize them.
Uncertainty is something that has been thrown into all of our faces around the world, what with the pandemic, more recently the war between Ukraine and Russia, and now the possibility of a recession. But for Susannah and Nathan, the topic of uncertainty has been a question they’ve been trying to answer and shed light on for the past 20 years.
It began when Nathan was doing his Ph.D. in Stanford, with his interest in innovators and technology strategy. He realized early on that innovators are people who have to take on uncertainty to make a living.
Everybody loves celebrating successful innovations, big risks, and breakthroughs, but what most people take for granted is nothing new comes from doing a certain, tried, and true path.
At first, when Nathan talked to his publishers about writing a book on uncertainty, they asked how it is different from ambiguity and or taking risks. But when the pandemic hit in 2020, they understood. Uncertainty feels more concrete when a real threat is present–a threat serious enough that people’s lives, finances, modes of living, social lives, mental health, and overall well-being are being rattled.
“Uncertainty is something that happens to us and it attacks the very fundamental human sense of [security],” Susannah says. They got the momentum to write the book during the pandemic.
Susannah believes that uncertainty is something that needs to be dealt with first as an individual before one can wield the same tools to lead a team or a business. That’s why they decided to write the book to the individual inside the managers and CEOs and all those people wearing those hats.
“...Before you can lead a team [through uncertainty], you kind of need to know how to navigate it yourself,” Susannah says. Sometimes navigating it means moving on from things, but when moving on isn’t an option, we need to figure out how to see the bigger picture or reframe what’s happening and find a way to stick with it and pivot.
The ”Upside” of Uncertainty
When we are unable to deal with uncertainty, it creates a really deep sense of anxiety that eats at us, and other problems arise from it. The Furrs tackle this and shows us how to flip it on its head, letting all of us know that there is an upside to uncertainty.
“Whenever there is uncertainty, there is always possibility attached…No possibility ever comes without first having some measure of uncertainty.” –Susannah Furr
During the pandemic, they did a little beta workshop they called UP school, where UP stands for Uncertainty and Possibility. The idea is uncertainty is just one side of the coin, and the possibility is just beyond. We prefer to go up than down, and in Buddhist teachings, sometimes we have to go down in order to go up. Aside from that, we can rest assured that whenever uncertainty does come, possibilities always come with it. We just need to know how to unlock it.
The Four Tool Categories in Dealing with Uncertainty
The pandemic threw us all into a collective tailspin of self-doubt and an overall sense of insecurity. It is easy to fall into a sad cognitive and behavioral trap of negative rumination, threat rigidity, and forcing outcomes just to get out of uncertainty. It is normal, human nature, how the “reptilian brain” or amygdala responds to uncertainty and the fear and anxiety that comes with it. The book offers a framework on how to battle this automatic response to uncertainty so we can see beyond fear and find opportunities. The tools are: Reframe, Prime, Do, and Sustain.
A psychology study by Tversky and Kahneman demonstrates that humans are naturally loss-averse and gain-seeking. Uncertainty for us feels like a loss, that is why we tend to run away from it. There is this inherent and gut-feeling of “I might lose everything.”
If we are trapped in the fear and desperation of wanting to distance ourselves from uncertainty, it is hard to take a step back and see the bigger picture, or look at things from a different angle and consider all the options within our reach. That is why reframe is the first tool we need to unlock the upside of uncertainty.
Even the greatest names in history fall into this trap. John Steinbeck, while he was writing his award-winning book, The Grapes of Wrath, kept a daily journal berating himself. He knew it was an important book, and that he needed to write it. He also knew there are a lot of people expecting great things from him, but he felt scared and insecure about his ability.
Richard Feynman, a physicist and Nobel prize winner, had a time in his career when he felt uninterested, unmotivated, and burnt out. It took going rouge on his self-doubt and focusing on things he is passionate about and answering questions that make him curious and matter to him for Richard to have a breakthrough in his life and his career.
We need a more objective view of the situation, and reframing acts as our compass or North star to navigate uncertainty. One of the tools mentioned in the book is named aplomb, which is similar to a plumb line–sometimes we need to find the direction of true gravity and show us where the real straight-line is pointing.
Once we feel a little more grounded, we start to see all these opportunities, adjacent possibilities, and infinite game that is available to us.
When we prime a room, we splash white paint on it so we can see the color of the paint we’ve chosen more objectively. This way, the true color of the paint will show, and we will be happier with the outcome. We also need to do something similar before we dive into navigating uncertainty.
One way to prime ourselves is by doing a little self-reflection on our personal risk-o-meters. This tool is something Nathan learned from his mentor at Stanford, Dr. Tina Felix. The idea behind risk-o-meter is there are different types of risk: financial, physical, emotional, social, and psychological risks, and we have varying affinities and aversions to facing those types of risks.
For example, Nathan wanted to be an entrepreneur, but he is averse to taking financial risks. However, he is good at facing social and intellectual risks head-on. Reflecting and assessing your own risk-o-meter helps you gain a more objective view of yourself as a risk-taker. This helps you feel more ready for whatever you’re facing, and gauge which types of risks you might need to push yourself a bit more.
This awareness is important because a lot of times, the risks we’re not willing to take will hold us back.
Of course, there are some risks not worth taking, but knowing this much about yourself helps you know what can get in your way (yourself included) in your uncertainty journey.
Another way to prime yourself is to have uncertainty balancers. During their interviews, Nathan talked to some innovators and bigwigs who say “I eat uncertainty for breakfast and I love it.”
But those same people are the ones who eat the same type of granola every day, book the same seat on the plane, stay in the same hotel and even try to book the same room if they can for business meetings. This is what uncertainty balancers are–Sometimes, to deal with uncertainty, we need other things to remain constant to make us feel cozy and safe.
It can be something like Steve Jobs and his black turtle necks, it can be comfort food, listening to music, doing an activity, or even people: meeting with your life coach, or going to an exercise class. We need something to balance the uncertainty. But we also have to watch what we use as balancers because it can become bad habits.
Take some uncertainty off if you can. Say no to some things. Put some things on the back burner. This fear attached to uncertainty is real and we can’t be like robots. We need something to make us feel safe and grounded.
Once we are grounded and ready, it is time to take action.
The world will continue moving on whether you are ready or not. If we don’t take action, other things are still going to move forward, so it is changing without our vote in it. In the face of uncertainty, some people think they can get away without doing anything, and that works sometimes, but it is so much better to be actively participating.
So, how do we take action under uncertainty? In the book, they call it Learning Through Fog.
In start-ups, they talk about fast learning, small steps, and incrementalism. Talking to other founders, business owners, like-minded people, and other people from various categories of work can also help you learn new things and have more options for planning action steps.
During writing the book, a lot of people say “You need a new management science for uncertainty.” However, the thing about uncertainty is it can’t be managed.
In order to manage something, you need to know the inputs, variables, timelines, needs, deadlines, etc. But there is no way of knowing that in uncertainty because nothing is certain. Instead of trying to force it and manage it, Susannah says we should be figuring out how to activate and unlock the possibilities.
Sometimes, doing something in the face of uncertainty is less about making our mark or forcing the idea we have, and more about being an observer and trusting that humans have a natural ability to adapt. We just need the right tools to unlock our potential for creativity and sustain us while adapting. And as we are exposed to uncertainty more, we start learning how to be flexible and be okay with not knowing what’s going to happen next–to take things as they are one step at a time.
It is also not enough to just take any action. “The idea is that if we take action based on our values rather than goals that lie outside of us, we will not fail,” Susannah says.
When our values align with our actions, whether we lose profits in business for taking a risk, we don’t lose anything that matters to us.
Sometimes, we have a clearer picture of the situation, our head is on the right track, and we have action plans that seem like they would work. Yet, despite being as prepared as we can be, we will fall off the horse every now and then. That is what it means to be uncertain. And that is why it is important to have tools to sustain ourselves when this happens.
There are three things we could do to sustain ourselves: Emotional hygiene, a quick reality check, and stay on the lookout for some magic.
Like physical hygiene, emotional hygiene is when you “clean the wounds and put on the band-aid.” It is important to check in on how you are doing emotionally and mentally. Uncertainty comes with stress and anxiety, and sometimes, we don’t notice when we are running on fumes.
When we are burnt out, it is easy to fall into a trap of learned helplessness. Sometimes when we are tired, it feels like nothing we do seems to go right and the frustration starts to pile up, and we feel like it is our fault, we are not enough, we are not skilled enough. We internalize the problems that come that are really outside our sphere of control.
Martin Seligman talked about learned optimism in his studies, and he believes that humans can learn self-talk that helps us be more optimistic. Sometimes it is as easy as a shift in the words we use. When something bad happens, instead of saying “It’s my fault, I’m not good enough, it’s hopeless.” we can say instead “Oh, yeah. That was bad timing.”
Dispute those negative beliefs and learn a little optimism.
A reality check is a series of tools that help us look truthfully at our current situation. It is easy to exaggerate a problem when we are upset and freaking out. We think of the worst-case scenario and feel helpless.
The good thing is, worst-case scenarios can be used constructively. In fact, psychologists use this tool to help people navigate their biggest negative what-ifs. Being prepared for the worst-case scenario is great. Freezing in fear of it isn’t. Focus on what you could do when things go south, and what are the things that matter that you want to still have with you even when the worst really comes true.
Reality checks work wonders as frustration management tools as well. Reframe your worst-case scenario this way: What good will/has come out of this failure? What are the things you learned? How did it help you grow?
Of course, some worst-case scenarios really are tragic and can be triggering, like a loss of a loved one. If it is too triggering for you, don’t do it. The goal is to look at the good that this bad situation brings, but sometimes, if the worst possible loss is too great, it is hard to appreciate the positive, even if it is there.
Sometimes, all you need is a helper, a sounding board, someone you trust and can talk to about your frustrations and will tell it to you straight when you are blowing things out of proportion needlessly.
The third thing is magic. There are those moments of serendipity that you can’t take full credit for like being in a good place or making the right call at the right time, meeting the right person, or getting an unexpected mail.–These little things that happen when you needed it most and changes your situation for the best, they are almost magical.
One way to find magic is through the stoic practice of memento mori. It means [in Latin] that we will all die, and it is true. It sounds morbid, but the idea is actually really beautiful: If today is the last day, what are the things you’ll do and not take for granted?
When we make it our mission to live every day like it is our last, and show up and apply ourselves fully in the things we do, sometimes the world helps us.
“Luck is not really as much luck as we think. When we go back and see people who are getting lucky, they’re the ones who are showing up and helping put away the chairs and talking to someone,” Susannah says. “I think it’s a shift in mindset to show up and be you. Don’t try to be someone else. Put yourself in places where you feel inspired.”
Transilience: What Goes Beyond Resilience?
“...Possibility is a transilient experience when we are able to harness all the uncertainty, fear, stress, and link up with the sense of ‘I can do this.’ …it is that moment of switching from uncertainty to possibility.” –Susannah Furr
Everyone loves resilience. The idea that all the stressors and problems thrown our way can make us stronger is appealing. People that are resilient and have grit can take a punch and stay standing. It’s excellent. We all need to be more robust.
But, transilience goes beyond resilience. It is the moment of a leap from one state to another, the way metal is molten in heat and is transformed into a new tool entirely. Or the way electrons jump to a whole new ground.
Transilience is facing uncertainty head-on and not just remaining on your feet, but transforming into something new and something better. The tools are already available to us, we just need to unlock and activate them. That is the upside of uncertainty.
Where to contact Susannah and Nathan Furr
Susannah and Nathan are not big on social media, but you can visit their website theupsideofuncertainty.com. It takes you to the UP School website where they have a lot of the tools that are described in detail.
You can also pre-order the book now! It comes out on July 19, so go to that website if you have more questions.
DISCLAIMER: The people interviewed are well-trained experts and highly skilled in their areas of practice. They take many safety precautions prior to attempting the activities described. The activities or research discussed in these podcasts should not be attempted without qualified supervision and training with professionals.