Analyze This

Analyze This

Uncertainty is a hallmark of volatile times like these. Tolerating it is a crucial skill. Can it be learned?

The 19th century English poet John Keats famously praised "negative capability," the capacity to embrace "uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts without any irritable reaching after fact & reason." The language and sentiment may be from the Romantic era, but in our modern, anxious world the idea is still relevant. The most successful business leaders I've met have just such "negative capability": They thrive on ambiguity.

Not everyone can, of course. If you have a mind that craves linearity and order, as a way of reducing anxiety, you may have a tough time tolerating "not knowing." The same is true if you're a concrete thinker rather than someone drawn to abstract concepts. Confidence plays a role, too. Dealing with uncertainty often involves reversing decisions—something people with shaky self-esteem don't handle all that well.

It isn't easy to overcome an intolerance of uncertainty. It takes a conscious struggle to maintain an open mind and practice—putting yourself in specific situations that are ambiguous (pretty easy to find these days) and realizing you don't have to have it all figured out. One tactic is to break down the uncertainty into smaller elements, targeting for action those that seem clearest. And in some cases it's best to delay decisions and let events unfold. (Things may become clearer later.) Trying to impose clarity prematurely can make things worse.

Indeed, in my experience, those who thrive in uncertain times closely follow the second part of Keats' prescription: They don't believe they'll resolve things by diving into data. They allow themselves time for reflection. They accept the doubt and anxiety that accompany an ambiguous situation. And they seem to know it's better to make micro-decisions along the way, based on "good enough" information, rather than pursue the mirage of gathering "all" the information. Perhaps that's one way, in the midst of a fog, they glimpse opportunities.

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