Trade the Curse of Certainty for a Single Step

In the past we’ve talked about making action your friend and giving high marks to Type A’s. As Conrad Hilton, founder of the Hilton chain of hotels observed, “Success seems to be connected with action. Successful people keep moving. They make mistakes, but they don’t quit.” Herb Kelleher, founder of the discount airline Southwest Airlines, summed up his organization’s entire strategy in two words: doing things. Artist Pablo Picasso noted that “Action is the foundational key to all success.” Writer, F. Scott Fitzgerald observed that “Action is character.” No lesser authority than Aristotle offered that we are what we repeatedly do. Author John Ruskin sums up the sentiment writing, “What we think or what we know or what we believe is, in the end, of little consequence. The only consequence is what we do.”

It has been said that the past is history and the future’s a mystery. Well, a mystery is just that because of uncertainty. We can never know with 100% certainty what is beyond doors number one, two, or three. The curse of certainty is an obstacle that too many of us stumble over. Tomorrow is coming whether we like it or not. The future will be on our doorstep regardless of whether we’re ready to step outside. Better to be ready in the morning with our boots on. What we do today is the best opportunity we have to influence the future such that it is favorable. Clamoring for certainty is just an excuse that takes the future out of our hands. Al Pittampalli in Persuadable writes, “We don’t like ambiguity. We like things to be true or false, black or white.” Clarity and certainty are comforting. Dr. Judson Brewer, a psychiatrist from Brown University, quoted by Michael Easter in Easter’s book The Comfort Crisis, “If given a choice, human brains are going to say, ‘Give me something that I can control or predict.’” As tempting as it seems to sit on the sidelines and defer doing until the paths are clearly laid out and progress is seen as guaranteed, this isn’t realistic.

As a Nobel Laureate for literature, Rabindranath Tagore, noted a hundred years ago, “You can’t cross a sea by merely staring into the water.” We may not know with certainty what monsters lurk beneath the surface, nor the depth, or temperature, yet we can do something to start our journey. As Martin Luther King offered and lived by, “You don’t have to see the whole staircase, just take the first step.” Jeff Olson, writing in The Slight Edge, echoes King’s philosophy for participating, “Don’t try to figure out the whole race. Just figure out where to put your foot for the starting line. Just start.” Ultimately, as Liz Forkin Bohannon writes in Beginner’s Pluck, “You can spend days, weeks, months, even years hemming and hawing over what the best first step is. Or, you can just take a step. Any step! A shot in the dark. That shot in the dark will, at the very least, give you a clue as to what the next step is. Which still might not be THE BEST step, but why does that matter? A step in any direction is infinitely better than standing in fear-induced stillness.” Where we can associate pain with pausing, then we may spur our willingness to step forward. If we can realize as Abraham Lincoln noted, “Things may come to those who wait, but only the things left by those who hustle,” we don’t want to be live with leftovers. Our bias to move forward in spite not knowing everything can be developed by keeping front of mind the Chinese Proverb “Be not afraid of going slowly; be afraid only of standing still.” No lesser authority than Canada’s own Wayne Gretzky gave us, “You miss 100 percent of the shots you don’t take.” A psychologist, Jonathan Baron, considers thinking as negative utility. In other words, doing is better than deliberating. The urge to move is echoed in Peters’ acronym of WTTMSW for “Whoever Tries the Most Stuff Wins.” Creative, Jenny Blake, writes in Free Time of the benefits of trying things noting, “Serendipity popcorn happens when you release your small experiments, or pilots, out into the world, without knowing what will result.”

At the end of the day, as the writer J. R. R. Tolkein observed, “It’s a job that’s never started that takes the longest to finish.” There’s a cost to clinging to certainty prior to acting. Our options wither as we dither. By not deciding, we are deciding. We’re deciding that the status quo is the way to go. We’re communicating that inaction is valued over initiative. Others around us see this. Are we encouraging experimentation? Are we leading by example? Are we demonstrating being proactive? Are we seen as dealing with problems or discussing them? In a good article discussing the downsides of delaying decisions, Cedric Chin writes, “In theory, the most difficult challenge in decision making is making the right decision. In practice, I’ve found that the most difficult challenge in decision making is executing a decision you do not want to do.” Chin goes on to note, “Effective individuals are usually effective because a) they are biased towards action, and b) they have the stomach to do what the rest of us might not.” A description of entrepreneurs and innovators is that they are driven by both ignorance and optimism. They believe they can make a difference without knowing how little they know. They aren’t held back by absence of experience, resources, or understanding. The blind exuberance of youth is fueled by a blind and blissful absence of accepting what they don’t know. The power of not knowing what we don’t know offers the freedom to explore.

Encouraging urgency in service of accelerating action isn’t about flailing frantically. It’s not about going faster headfirst into disaster. We’re seeking considered action. As the German General Rommel wrote in a letter, “It is my experience that bold decisions give the best promise of success, but one must differentiate between strategic or tactical boldness and a military gamble. A bold operation is one in which success is not a certainty but which in case of failure leaves one with sufficient forces in hand to cope with whatever situation may arise. A gamble, on the other hand, is an operation which can lead either to victory or to the complete destruction of one’s force.” In other words, don’t bet the farm. Above all, stay in the game. As Jeff Olson writes in The Slight Edge, “The power of a plan is not that it will get you there. The power of a plan is that it will get you started… You need a first plan so you can get to your second plan, so you can get to your third plan, so you can get to your fourth plan.” It’s not blind action, there’s some direction. We’re making a choice based on the information available to us today. We’re not using uncertainty as an escape. When do we know that we know all we need to know? Do you know what kind of decision you are making? The two factors to consider in weighing how quickly a decision should be made are its reversibility and its reach. How significant a decision is it coupled with can the decision be changed once made? Greater impact and less option to turnaround imply taking time to get it right. All other decisions benefit from a bias for action over deliberation. Is it reversible? If yes, go for it. Just act. Go. More discussion is delay. More collaboration is confusion. If the decision involves something that is undoable, then there’s no reason to treat it like a lifelong commitment. Make the best choice you can based on the information available to you today. You can plan on regularly reviewing your choice in order to check in to see if progress is being made against the desired direction factoring in new information that arises. If a decision appears irreversible, then a bias to action should be tempered in favor of fact finding.

Betting on horse races has been a fun pastime for many over the years. Some take it a bit too seriously and dig deep into studying many sources of information prior to placing a wager. To those in the know there seems no end to what’s available to know. Some “experts” suggest there are 88 variables worth considering when betting on horse races. In the arena of predictions, not just horse racing, more information seems to be a goal. Those that have better access to data are likely to make better decisions, so it would seem. However, is there a point where too much information clouds judgment? Is information overload is risk factor to both timing and quality of decision making?

In research of experienced horse bettors, participants were given a list of 80+ variables they could consider. Participants were then asked to list the top five of the variables listed in terms of influence on performance outcomes from their perspective. They were then asked to select the top 10, 20, and 40 most important variables. Then they were given actual information from past races to review and asked to pick outcomes for the top five horses in each race. They were asked to make these predictions with the various number of variables they had identified as important earlier. After making predictions they were asked to assign a confidence value to their prediction on a scale of 0 – 100. As researchers evaluated the data, they found that the more data that had been considered resulted in more confidence in a decision. Unfortunately, the quality of prediction with more data didn’t follow the confidence. Their actual predictive capability was largely the same whether only five data points reviewed or forty. Researchers offered two takeaways from their study. Confidence in forecasting has little to do with actual outcomes and there may be limits to the value of exploring piles of data in decision making. More information doesn’t mean improved decision making. We don’t need all the information to make a decision. More confidence doesn’t translate into competence. Get comfortable accepting and acting in an environment of uncertainty and focus on executing.

Impulsivity isn’t the idea. It’s favoring constructive action as a default. A starting point is to evaluate the time allocated to problem analysis and option considerations compared to that spent on implementation. When presenting, what is the balance of time spent on analyzing the problem versus the time taken to discuss implementing a solution? Do your discussions give equal weight to evaluating options and execution? What is the time spent between analyzing an issue and implementing a solution? How is time distributed between problem analysis and detailing options versus implementation? Try monitoring your meetings for time spent on these two categories of conversation. Does the discussion spend time on who, what, when to dos? Is the emphasis on what’s next and accountability? Seek to increase the time spent on these areas to develop more of a bias for action. Ensure that decision making spends as much or more time discussing execution as it does direction. Larry Bossidy and Ram Charan in Execution write, “Execution is a systematic process of rigorously discussing hows and whats, questioning, tenaciously following through, and ensuring accountability.” Tom Peters, in The Excellence Dividend, gives us the Iron Law of Execution, “When you talk all the time about execution, it’s likely to happen. When you don’t, it doesn’t.” Peters suggests to “monitor and assess your conversations and meetings : Is the execution/implementation/who-what-when-next milestones discussion front and center and dominant and committed to paper and reiterated more or less immediately in follow-up written communications?”

Excellence can only be found in execution. Intention is insolence. The first woman that made the cover of a Wheaties box was Elinor Smith. She was an aviator that was spurred to explore when she recognized, “It had long since come to my attention that people of accomplishment rarely sat back and let things happen to them. They went out and happened to things.” Those that are willing to act in the face of uncertainty appear bold. Progress is more likely to accrue to doers than deliberators. Think of life as a lab and you’re an experiment of one, so try something. Take small steps and see what the world gives back. Who knows, perhaps, you’ll be lucky and get some of Blake’s serendipity popcorn back which will tell you you’re heading in the right direction. This approach has been called Little Bets, Rapid Iteration, or Failing Faster. All are methods to encourage doing something. Better to get busy. Act now. Revise later. There’s always a reason to pause, to take time to consider options. Realize that many of these are simply excuses to hide from the responsibility of doing something. Don’t let a quest for certainty turn your feet into concrete freezing you in place. Worry like Winston Churchill who offered, “I never worry about action, but only inaction.”