The Cost of Uncertainty

Reducing uncertainty means cutting through the noise, identifying what’s most important to know, and using that clarity to make informed choices and decisions.

Posted on March 5, 2021

Uncertainty Suppresses Growth

On a long drive a few weeks ago, I exhausted my usual queue of podcasts. So, I turned to one that had slowly gone stale in my library from McKinsey. It’s not that I don’t love a good management consulting podcast, but none of the topics had compelled me to click play. Like celery in the vegetable drawer of the refrigerator, I figured I would get to it eventually.

The day had come. I clicked play and listened to the host and guest as they dove into the economics of COVID-19 and predictions about economic growth across industries in 2021 and 2022. The host asked pointedly how exactly we will get out of the economic rut we’re in and the guest responded succinctly.

“Reducing uncertainty is the key to unlocking economic suppression.”

I grabbed a pen and chicken-scratched the sentence down on a FedEx receipt pulled from my cup holder while cruising down the highway. There was an underlying principle in the statement that transcended the immediate topic. Uncertainty suppresses growth.

The Pursuit of Clarity

In 1789, Benjamin Franklin wrote a letter to French scientist Jean-Baptiste Le Roy. In it, he famously said, “Our new Constitution is now established, everything seems to promise it will be durable; but, in this world, nothing is certain except death and taxes.” If we hold the last half of his statement to be true, then there is quite a bit about life that is uncertain.

Uncertainty is an ever-present aspect of living we cannot escape. Because we cannot rid ourselves of it completely, the best we can do is manage or reduce it. I tend to see life in a dialectical way — as a litany of opposites that push against each other to make us stronger, fitter, more stable.

To counter uncertainty, we need its dialectical opposite: clarity. These two forces have to push against each other to help us adapt and grow over the course of life. As we face uncertainty, we search for clarity and uncover it as an antidote. Left unbalanced or alone, the cost of uncertainty grows until it inhibits forward progress or obscures good judgement.

If you have a few minutes, make a list of everything you’re uncertain about today — in a work assignment, personal project, or intellectual endeavor. Stop yourself after 7 or 8 items and circle the ones that are most important to you right now. Then, make a list of the questions you need answered to reduce or eliminate the uncertainty. This is the first step towards clarity. It’s the start of paying down the cost of uncertainty in your life.

Cutting Through the Noise

In a post last year, I quoted Jon Stewart in a New York Times article: “The enemy is noise. The goal is clarity.” There is so much noise in our lives that reinforces uncertainty: distractions, erroneous information and questions, other people’s priorities. Achieving clarity (or reducing uncertainty) means cutting through the noise, identifying what’s most important to know, and using that clarity to make informed choices and decisions.

I write this post first for myself. I would be lying if I said that I’ve mastered much of what I’ve written. In my current role, informed decision-making must be a core capability. There are too many downstream effects and second order consequences to be an amateur decision maker. We level up in work and life by learning how to pursue clarity. We unlock value — for ourselves and others — when we reduce uncertainty.