3 Ways to Cope with Uncertainty

While teaching my psychology class yesterday, we got into a conversation about the problem of truth. Namely: just because you think you know something and our entire society thinks it knows something, doesn’t make it true. (Remember that whole flat earth theory?) Back when information wasn’t dangling all around us, this wasn’t nearly as obvious, but these days it’s hard to miss that different people seem to “know” some pretty contradictory things.

At this point one of my students sighed an exasperated sigh and said: “I’m pregnant, and all this uncertainty is driving me crazy. One doctor tells me I should be drinking a lot of water. Another one tells me I should be drinking less water. How do we cope with the uncertainty?”

Of course I adore this question. It’s what our company is obsessed with figuring out. But instead of answering, I turned her question back to the rest of the class: “What do you all think?” Here are some of my favorite answers:

1. Acknowledge It: The first thing you have to do is admit that there’s probably no single answer and way too much information to digest. Face the fact that there are no hard facts – just a lot of data.

2. Decide How You’ll Decide: If you try to Google everything there is about how much water you should drink, you’ll still be Googling by the time you’re in the delivery room. Set a deciding strategy like: “I’m going to read four articles from seemingly reliable sources, speak to two doctors, call four friends, and then make a decision by this Friday. If important new evidence comes up, I can always change what I’m doing.”

3. Experiment and Iterate: Try drinking eight glasses of water for a week and pay close attention to how you feel. Next, drink just one glass of water a day and track how you feel. Follow the evidence and make small, incremental changes often.

Here’s what I love about these approaches: any individual or organization exploring this world without a map can use this advice (whether you are a pregnant woman, a scientist, an artist, or an innovative company).

Have a different suggestion? I’d love┬áto hear how you handle uncertainty.

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  1. Steve Nelson

    Way (way) back in the day when Google was new I made a site called Spellweb that would take two alternate spellings and send them to Google to see which got the most hits, and that was the “true” spelling. For the most part, it worked, and people used it for a number of things, including spelling. With Spellweb, though, true=most popular, and in some cases it wasn’t how *I* would have spelled it!It’s like prescriptivists vs descriptivists in linguistics. Prescriptivists talk about the true language, and what we should be saying. Descriptivists say that truth is in what we actually do say. If the prescriptivists had won, we’d be saying “thou” a lot more than we do.

    P.S. – it’s not the current Spellweb. My domain got recycled in the great domain debacle of 2009.

    • Wow I LOVE this idea. And it makes me realize how much I’ve changed since Surprise Industries. Once upon a time I was enroute to becoming a linguist (a VERY prescriptive one). They used to call me the Comma Nazi. These days I’m pretty much entirely a descriptivist. I never realize how much that has to do with letting go of control and the idea that things “should be” a certain way.

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