Lesson 1: Embrace uncertainty

On 29th April 2011 former US President Barack Obama made one of his most difficult decisions. He had to decide whether to launch an attack on a compound in Pakistan that intelligence agents suspected to be the home of Osama bin Laden.

First, he was uncertain that bin Laden was actually residing in the compound. “As outstanding a job as our intelligence teams did,” said the President, “At the end of the day, this was still a 55/45 situation. I mean, we could not say definitively that bin Laden was there.”

Second, regardless of whether bin Laden was residing in the compound, it was uncertain that the operation would succeed. “You’re making your best call, your best shot, and something goes wrong — because these are tough, complicated operations.”

There are two forms of uncertainty: hidden information and randomness. Obama had to grapple with both of these on that night in 2011.

First was the uncertainty of hidden information. For example, was bin Laden in the compound? Second was the random uncertainty of all the possible ways the mission could unfold. For example, the possibility of mechanical failure.

Many of the decisions we make every day are also subject to the same types of uncertainty. Do I accept the job offer from the successful start-up company?

How embracing uncertainty can make you a better decision maker

  • You know the limits of what you know: There are very few things that we can be 100% sure of. By embracing uncertainty you are better able to assess the likelihood of chance events happening.
  • More open minded: If we are 100% sure about something then there is no incentive to learn more. By not learning more we risk making poor decisions.
  • We invite collaboration: The viewpoints that disagree with us are the ones that are most helpful. They help fill in the gaps in our knowledge for us, offering different perspectives and suggesting alternative ideas.

Why is this important? Well, by not embracing uncertainty your decisions are likely to be incorrect, and risk creating bigger problems. The economist Kenneth Arrow (a weather forecaster during the Second World War) captured this sentiment well, “To me our knowledge of the way things work, in society or in nature comes trailing clouds of vagueness. Vast ills have followed a belief in certainty.”

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