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Perspective on knowledge: Without a doubt

Preparing for the unknown

Clearly, in many instances we don’t express a precise probability because we don’t know the precise probability. In many instances, we couldn’t know the precise probability if we wanted to. But even when the likelihood of an outcome is known with some precision, we don’t include it in the prediction because we want to look more sure than we are … or sound more sure than we are. Apparently, we don’t like uncertainty. But why?

Sometimes, it’s because we want to seem reliable for commercial reasons: Airplane departure times are an example of this. But a false sense of reliability is revealed every time one of our flights is late. The result is that we lose trust in the bald statement that our plane will arrive at 11:52 p.m. Who expects that arrival times expressed down to the minute will be accurate down to the minute?

Given that the future is deeply uncertain, from the tiniest of decisions to the largest, we should love carefully calculated probabilities, for they are the way we deal with a world that has no interest in conforming to our projections or desires. They let us rationally prepare for things not going our way. Any strategist or planner worth her salt is getting as good a read as she can on the nature and magnitude of what she cannot predict.

Embracing the unpredictable

Yet, in everyday life, we often hold back the certainty of our statements even though uncertainty is as fundamental a fact of life as our need to eat and the inevitability of our eventual death. Avoiding stating the probability of our predictions enables us to skirt around their inconvenient truth.

Of course, we don’t like uncertainty because it makes a mockery of our plans. Plans are our way of shaping the future by anticipating it and trying to narrow it down to the possibilities we prefer. Usually, that means we have one way of succeeding and an infinite number of ways of failing. 

We’ve had to tread this uncomfortable road for tens of thousands of years. We’ve assumed the future is a narrowing of possibilities until only one remains: the present. But, as I argue in my forthcoming book Everyday Chaos (May, 2019), you have to wonder if our experiences over the past 2 decades in environments where opening up new possibilities is a strategy for business and our lives might perhaps let us rejoice in the unpredictability of the future. 

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