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How you can use uncertainty to your advantage at work

A new book illustrates ways to reframe uncertainty as a potential gain to make the best of new life opportunities

We gravitate toward gains, particularly when they feel certain, and struggle to make sense of loss, risk, and uncertainty. (iStock)

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For better or for worse, human beings are wired to fear uncertainty. Psychologists argue that fear of the unknown may be the fundamental fear underpinning all other anxieties, and neuroscientists have demonstrated that we have multiple neural alarm systems that fire in the event of uncertainty. This presents a challenge for us because, despite being wired to fear the unknown, the only way we get to new possibilities is by first facing uncertainty. 

The good news is that if we can learn to frame uncertainty as the doorway to possibility, we can actually use the same wiring in our brain that warns us against the unknown to help us get excited about, and even embrace, uncertainty. In fact, some people have become so skilled at this that they have learned to see uncertainty as a good thing, even choosing to create more of it on purpose because they realize it helps them access new possibilities.

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‘The Upside Of Uncertainty: A Guide To Finding Possibility In The Unknown’ by Nathan Furr and Susannah Harmon Furr
‘The Upside Of Uncertainty: A Guide To Finding Possibility In The Unknown’ by Nathan Furr and Susannah Harmon Furr

The mechanisms behind this are what behavioral researchers call the framing effect, which affects whether we perceive something as a loss or a gain. Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky won a Nobel Prize for their work demonstrating that people make different choices based on how something is “framed” or described. When presented with a choice—such as a medical treatment with a 5 percent chance of failure or a different treatment with a 95 percent chance of success—people are consistently gain-seeking and loss-averse. We strongly prefer the treatment presented as a gain (the 95 percent chance of success) even though the one framed as a loss (the 5 percent chance of failure) probabilistically has the exact same success rate.

Loss, especially the kind of loss that arises from uncertainty, sparks deep and powerful reactions. Empirical research suggests we are motivated by the fear of loss more than by the potential for gain (at least twice as much). And fMRI imaging studies that peek into our brain's reactions reveal that it takes vastly more mental energy for our brains to make sense of a loss than a gain, even if it is a certain loss that is objectively easy to understand. If we are facing time pressure, our difficulty dealing with potential losses gets even more extreme. Our desire to avoid losses is so great that we will even violate our own ethics and be dishonest if it helps us keep what we have. In other words, there is a great deal of empirical work supporting a core human tendency: we gravitate toward gains, particularly when they feel certain, and struggle to make sense of loss, risk, and uncertainty.

The good news is that we can use this same framing effect to reframe uncertainty as a potential gain, rather than a loss, thereby changing how we respond to it. Begin by framing yourself as someone who has enough courage to stand at the edge of opportunity. This definitely can sound easier than it is, except the mindset shift does have a light-switch quality to it, as illustrated by the example of our expat friends during the Covid-19 summer of 2020. It was a tense time for most families, even those who had a place to live and stable jobs, but for Amy and Michael—who didn’t know what was next—that summer was brutal. Earlier his company had let them know they were cutting his position, but just as he seemed to be locking in on several tantalizing job offers, the pandemic erupted, and one by one, every single offer was rescinded. They had no jobs, nowhere to live, and no idea where to go next except that they had flights to leave, the final concession from his old company for his expat service. For weeks their home life was a high-tension zone, with everyone walking on eggshells. Their teenagers harangued them, “You are the worst parents ever! How can you have no clue where we are going next?” Well-meaning friends and parents texted anxious questions like, “Do you guys have any plans yet?” The only bright spot was a mixed blessing: a job had opened up but in a place and a role neither of them wanted.

It was on a drizzly July 1 that Susannah met Amy for lunch. Amy conceded that their family had tickets to leave the country in two days and a hotel reservation back home for a couple nights, but they still had no jobs and nowhere to live. At that very moment Michael was interviewing with a French company, raising the question of whether they would get on the flight if he got an offer quickly enough. They were exhausted by the stress and worry of how to move forward.

After listing the grim facts, Amy asked Susannah, “Are we terrible parents? Should we just take the bird in the hand? I feel like we are such losers!” Susannah, fresh from researching and writing about framing effects, was thrilled to be the bearer of good news. She responded, “Not at all! You guys aren’t losers—you have the courage to explore the possibilities, to wait for the things you really want. You are heroes standing on the edge of possibility. You guys are doing a master’s degree in uncertainty!” Amy conceded a smile, then took out a pen and started jotting down notes on her napkin as Susannah explained that uncertainty has upsides but that we can’t achieve anything new without also facing the unknown that comes with it. Then she tried to help Amy reframe her abilities and be bolder about looking for frontiers and adjacent possibles. At the end of the lunch, she encouraged Amy, “This is graduate-level uncertainty, so go tell your kids how lucky they are to have such cool parents, who are bold enough to believe in, and wait for, what they really want.” It was a victorious moment for Amy, who felt rejuvenated, but also for Susannah, who witnessed framing work in an instant.

A few months later, Susannah received an interesting text from Amy: “Good morning! Things have slowly worked themselves out here. I’m working for a neighbor’s mortgage company. Michael took a great job in Boston but can work remote for now, so we’ll evaluate moving in spring. We bought a fixer-upper in a fun neighborhood full of kids so they can skateboard, bike, jump in the river, swim at the pool, etc. Christina leaves for New York next week to spend the year nannying!” Framing their ongoing uncertainty as the normal, foggy by-product of the pandemic, and not as an indicator of personal weakness, enabled them to wait out the discomfort that felt like it would never end. Ultimately, they found a situation that resonated for everyone.

Reprinted by permission of Harvard Business Review Press. Excerpted from The Upside Of Uncertainty: A Guide To Finding Possibility In The Unknown by Nathan Furr and Susannah Harmon Furr. ©2022 Harvard Business School Publishing Corporation. All rights reserved.

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