There is a short phrase that I’ve been quite fond of in the context of project management and product development for years. Those two words are “Shit happens!”. The meaning, of course, is that undesirable things happen. And more pertinently, unexpected undesirable things happen. No amount of planning will give you 100% certainty. As Donald Rumsfeld famously stated:
“There are known knowns. These are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns. That is to say, there are things that we know we don’t know. But there are also unknown unknowns. There are things we don’t know we don’t know.”
– Donald Rumsfeld
No matter how well we think we’ve predicted the future, there are always unknown unknowns. This is why it is wise in project management to build in some contingency and in agile we speak of the “cone of uncertainty” (source: Steve McConnell). Not just because things take longer than we estimate, which they often do (optimism bias), but because unpredictable things will happen to derail us far more often than we like to think.
Don’t be a Turkey
Former options trader Nassim Nicholas Taleb in his book Antifragile reminds us that our history can blind us. We base our future vision on our past and in particular assume that the worst that can happen is based on the worst things that have happened in the past:
“But they never notice the following inconsistency: this so-called worst-case event, when it happened, exceeded the worst [known] case at the time.”
– Nassim Nicholas Taleb in Antifragile
Taleb refers to this as the “turkey problem” after the analogy of a turkey who is leading a happily fed and comfortable free-range life only to have a big shock come Christmas (or Thanksgiving day in the US).
And then we have the Black Swans which Nassim Nicholas Taleb describes in his book “The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable” as highly unpredictable, high-impact events that we post-rationalise, erroneously:
“…an event with the following three attributes. First, it is an outlier, as it lies outside the realm of regular expectations because nothing in the past can convincingly point to its possibility. Second, it carries an extreme impact…. Third, in spite of its outlier status, human nature makes us concoct explanations for its occurrence after the fact, making it explainable and predictable.”
– Nassim Nicholas Taleb in “Black Swans”
Black Swans can be both good and bad. The bad ones may be described (by me) more crudely as:
“Wildy Catastrophic Shit Happens”
A central idea in Taleb’s book is not to attempt to predict Black Swan events, but to build robustness to negative events and an ability to exploit positive events. A theme central to Antifragile also. Life is ultimately pretty volatile. We can become more antifragile by building up our resources against undesirable events. Taleb uses the analogy of building muscle in access to what you typically need so that you can deal with situations that place unexpected extra demands on you. For example, if you exercise and build strong back muscles, even though those muscles may not get used to their full extent much of the time, when you suddenly find yourself lifting something very heavy your back muscles will support you through this event. You will be less fragile – you will not slip a disc. The same applies to other aspects of our being and in particular our “cognitive muscles”.
So rather than investing effort in avoiding volatility – life’s ups and downs – we should invest effort in building our ability to ride life’s ups and downs – to build resilience – become antifragile. Life gives us opportunities to build our cognitive muscles every day, in small and not so small ways. Each is an opportunity to strengthen these muscles for when we really will need them. Possibly even to survive.
A central idea of (secular) Buddhism is that one of the greatest sources of human suffering stems from our distorted view of reality. Of course, our view of reality is always distorted to some degree and so some suffering is inevitable. However, the more narrow-minded we are, the greater that suffering is likely to be. This lies at the heart of Zoom-Out and the strapline “Optimise your reality”. We can shape our own reality and the closer that reality is to the nature of things, the less likely we are to suffer. Another way of expressing this is in terms of the gap between our expectations and what actually happens – our expectations gap. Again this can result in a good experience, a positive surprise! But can also lead to a bad experience, a bad surprise.
Joseph Tussman (1914-2005), an American educator and chair of the philosophy department at University of California, Berkeley put it this way:
“What the pupil must learn, if he learns anything at all, is that the world will do most of the work for you, provided you cooperate with it by identifying how it really works and aligning with those realities. If we do not let the world teach us, it teaches us a lesson.”
— Joseph Tussman
So if we Zoom-Out and broaden our mind to the complex and often chaotic nature of the world we inhabit, the more resilient and adaptable we will become. Just consider how much our realities are shaped by people and how complex and unpredictable people can be. If we treat surprise as learning and not something to get defensive about or try to dismiss or avoid in some way then we can better manage our own expectation gaps. A nice way of summarising this is to see uncertainty as something to embrace rather than deny or limit – “Embrace uncertainty”.
Of course, we all need a degree of certainty in our lives. We just want to be able to assume certain things will happen today. For example, the sun will rise in the morning, my clothes will still fit when I put them on, the office will still be there when I get to work, etc. But as humans, we also need a degree of uncertainty. If everything is 100% predictable we will get very bored and will not be challenged. Novelty and stepping outside of our comfort zones are keys to human growth and fulfilment. So there is obviously a balance. The key argument here is that if we can cultivate greater tolerance for uncertainty, then we can face life’s challenges in a more proactive way. As Abraham Lincoln once said:
“The best way to predict the future is to create it.”
– Abraham Lincoln
What’s your preferred balance between certainty and uncertainty?
CERTAINTY >> ? << UNCERTAINTY
Zoom-Out is ultimately about how we choose to see things and situations. So regardless of how predictable or unpredictable an event is, we should always be mindful of separating our perspective on the event to the actual event itself. What story are we telling ourselves about the event? What meaning are we attaching to the event? Remember that we have a choice and do not have to accept the default one that arises in our mind. We can be proactive and take responsibility (response-ability – S.R. Covey).
“People are not disturbed by events but by the view they hold about them.” – Epictetus, Stoic philosopher
Optimising Your Reality
So what can you do to optimise your reality?
In summary, cultivate the following daily:
- See Volatility – see the world and people for the volatile systems they are
- Embrace Uncertainty – aim to embrace uncertainty rather than eliminate or control uncertainty
- Don’t be a “turkey” – don’t judge the future by the past
- Expect Black Swans – see that life is shaped by Black Swans – highly unpredictable, high impact events
- Overcompensate – build up your resources for dealing with what life throws at you; build up your physical and mental muscles in preparation for the unexpected
- Avoid Burnout – recognise signs of your resources running low, for example, “burnout” (overworked) and take steps to replenish and rebuild
- Take Response-Ability – take responsibility for your responses. For negative events, see what story you are telling yourself – what meaning you are attaching to the event – and replace with a more helpful version
- Nassim Nicholas Taleb. (2012) “Antifragile: Things that Gain from Disorder”
- Nassim Nicholas Taleb. (2007) “The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable”
- Stephen R. Covey. (1989) “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People: Powerful Lessons in Personal Change”