Digesting Uncertainty

April 28, 2020

Hurtling at full speed across the savannah, a man flees a charging lion.

After a prolonged chase, he evades it by scrambling up a tree.

To an onlooker, whether it’s the first or hundredth time the man escapes, the scene looks the same. But to the fleeing man, those experiences feel worlds apart. The first time he escapes he is terrified beyond belief. The hundredth time, he is excited, but calm. The situation doesn’t change, but his emotional response to it does.

This post is going to discuss how success depends on your attitude to the world around you.

What do I mean by success? Success is achieving a subjective goal. It is entirely down to you. It could be defined as cooking a great meal in a new kitchen, beating an opponent at tennis, or surviving the onslaught of an onrushing lion.

Each example has a context for success. Success never occurs in a vacuum. It always depends on the context, the local environment, of the task at hand.

Given a specific task, your success depends on a few variables: Your own skill, the environment and your attitude towards it, and luck. Becoming more skilful is simple — drill the skills you aim to improve. I won’t discuss luck here. This post is about the rest of the world — the environment and how you relate to it.

Controlling your environment is really about uncertainty and our relationship to it. There are two ways to master your environment. The first is by reducing uncertainty, and the second is by becoming more comfortable with it.

Approach 1: Reducing Uncertainty

To reduce uncertainty, make your environment familiar. If you want to give a great speech, it helps to get onstage before your performance, even if you don’t practice. Familiarising yourself with your surroundings reduces uncertainty, and makes you feel more comfortable. Making your environment familiar is an extrinsic approach. To succeed in a new environment, you must first go there and become accustomed to it. For each new environment, you start again. It takes time.

Pushy parents are practitioners of this approach. They take their kids on a-million-and-one excursions, and force them through too many extracurricular activities. It is popular to criticise Tiger parenting at the moment. But one benefit is the kids end up comfortable navigating a variety of different environments.

Making your environment familiar is all about simulation. Simulation reduces uncertainty by repeated iteration of the task. Like Jake Gyllenhaal in the movie Source Code, we do the same thing over and over again. We anticipate the repeated features, which makes tasks easier the next time around. The most common type of simulation, practice, requires you to enter the environment in order to do it.

Another type of simulation is visualisation. Visualisation allows you to gain familiarity without actually entering the environment in question. Provided they are similar to reality, visualisations of giving a speech, or running a race can also reduce uncertainty and discomfort.

A particularly useful visualisation is the pre-mortem. You imagine you have carried out your task and failed. You look down on your performance from above. Like a coroner scrutinising a corpse in an attempt to determine the cause of death, you scrutinise your own imagined performance. Why did I fail? This exercise changes your frame of reference, and helps you imagine potential pitfalls, which you can then plan for.

Approach 2: Digesting Uncertainty

The second approach is to adapt your attitude directly. One way to do this is through mindfulness — observing your mind’s reactions to the outside world and accepting them. This approach is intrinsic. Masters of mindfulness are comfortable whichever environment they are in. Practitioners encourage accepting the environment and your mind as they are, allowing you to rise above your discomfort. Instead of reducing uncertainty, you accept it.

Mindfulness sounds like a magic bullet. Who wouldn’t want to be comfortable in any environment? In practice, true mindfulness is tough to attain. It takes thousands of hours of meditation and training to achieve a high level of competence. Changing your attitude is hard. It requires a lot of internal motivation. It is no surprise most parents favour the first approach, because they don’t have to persuade their kids of its benefits.

Mindfulness is useful, but not ideal. Accepting an environment as it is” reduces an individual’s agency to change it. My preferred approach is advocated by Riva Tez. She talks of thinking about life like a game, and finding the fun” in every activity you do, every circumstance you’re a part of. Instead of being uncomfortable, uncertainty becomes exciting.

While improving familiarity reduces uncertainty, having a playful attitude helps you take advantage of it. Adopting this mind-set encourages you to seek out new environments; playgrounds to improve your skills. The new places become familiar, and you extend your comfort zone once more. The best of both words.

Instead of accepting uncertainty and letting it wash over you, you digest uncertainty, transforming it into something productive.

We all know that practice makes perfect. But practicing depends on what you want to perfect. Adopting a playful attitude is underrated and context-independent. It’s portable, and useful. And it also makes you a lot more fun.