The Power Of Uncertainty: Embracing The Unknown For Personal Growth With Maggie Jackson

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Take Back Time | Maggie Jackson | Uncertainty

 

We all crave certainty, but award-winning author Maggie Jackson argues in her acclaimed book Uncertain: The Wisdom and Wonder of Being Unsure that embracing the power of uncertainty is the key to unlocking our full potential. Jackson, a renowned expert on social trends and technology’s impact on humanity, delves into the science behind why uncertainty fuels creativity, resilience, and a deeper understanding of ourselves and others. Uncertain is a powerful call to action, urging us to reframe our relationship with the unknown and harness its power for personal growth in a world that’s constantly changing. So, forget the comfort of having all the answers. Tune in to this thought-provoking episode with Maggie Jackson.

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The Power Of Uncertainty: Embracing The Unknown For Personal Growth With Maggie Jackson

Maggie Jackson is here with us. She is going to give us something to think about. She’s an award-winning author and journalist with a global reach. Her book, Uncertain: The Wisdom and Wonder of Being Unsure, explores why we should seek not knowing in times of flux. She’s been nominated for a national book award and named to three best books of 2023 lists. Uncertain has been lauded as incisive and timely triumphant by Dan Pink, surprising and practical by Gretchen Rubin, and remarkable and persuasive by the Library Journal.

This acclaimed book, Distracted, sparked a global conversation on the steep cost of fragmenting our attention. She’s written a couple of fantastic books, and I could read on and on about all of her accolades. She’s written for the New York Times and many other publications. Without further ado, Maggie, welcome to the show.

Thank you very much. It’s great to be here.

It’s good to be uncertain, is what you’re saying. In uncertain times, be uncertain. Is that what you’re saying?

Uncertainty

Uncertainty is highly related to curiosity, resilience, adaptability, and creativity. These are the skills that we need when life is unpredictable. As volatility rises and precarity and erratic weather patterns, we’re living in a more unpredictable world. That is precisely the time when we shouldn’t be retreating into the closed-mindedness of certainty. Uncertainty itself, being unsure, gets a bad rap. The science now shows that’s a mistaken assumption. Uncertainty is not related to weakness and inertia. It’s precisely the opposite.

Tell me if I’m wrong that it’s our nature to crave certainty and feel secure. If you look at Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, it’s secure, ensuring the certainty of where we’re going to get our food and safety. Is that why we are clinging to certainty in uncertain times?

There are a lot of different reasons, but that’s a good point. Humans are born to need and want answers. Uncertainty is not the end goal. We would not want to linger on ear resolution and inertia in indecision. That’s not the end goal. We need, want, and should want to get to the better answer and not the first answer. That, in a nutshell, is what uncertainty gives us. Uncertainty opens up the space between question and answer so that you can get to a better solution.

One of the most important starting points for understanding uncertainty for the new science of uncertainty is to understand that it starts with unease. What you were describing, but we need answers, particularly at a time when we’re outcome-focused and efficiency-focused and want to rush to get the fast fix. It starts with unease because we get uneasy when we’re uncertain.

The most interesting aspect of the new science of uncertainty shows us that this unease is a benefit. It’s a gift because uncertainty is good stress. When you meet up with something new, it could be a traffic jam or a memo from your boss about an M&A. When you meet up with something new or ambiguous, your body and brain naturally spring into action. You’re going to react to respond.

What happens is your heart might beat, and your cortisol levels might rise. We know those symptoms, but new discoveries have found that there are incredible neural changes in the brain. Your brain becomes more receptive to new data. Your working memory is bolstered when you’re uncertain. Your focus is widened and improved. Scientists call these curious eyes.

It’s the moment, as one neuroscientist told me, that the brain is telling itself there’s something to be learned here. I call it wakefulness. The reason your body and brain are jumping into action is that you are being moved from the autopilot of our days. When your expectations are that things are familiar, it hits something new. Your brain is moving you toward updating your view and understanding of the world. It’s a pivotal time that we shouldn’t squander. One of the first ways in which we can work smarter is to listen to uncertainty as a signal, not fall into the mindset of, “I don’t know here. I’m not sure here. I’m inadequate. I have to get this answer.” No, we can’t fall into those traps and those mental fears.

It’s fear for people. I don’t know what’s coming, and therefore, I feel it. It makes me uncomfortable. I wanted to come back before we go into some of those points because they are fantastic. I’m sitting here taking notes because I love what you’re saying. I’m writing a lot of things down.

I love that you pointed it out because it’s a quick reframe for people to think we’ve got it all wrong. There’s nothing to fear. It’s to embrace that when we are uncertain, we’re attentive and read. That’s what we need because we are not attentive and ready. This autopilot of doing things the way we’ve always done it or the constant level of distraction. We can block those out and dance in this uncertainty. We’re going to get more out of it.

It’s a big pivot on what we think of uncertainty. It’s a huge mistake to think of this unease as something to retreat from. Think of it as a sign that you’re not doing well. This is good stress. One wonderful story that illustrates this is a study not long ago, an award-winning, now classic, study of CEOs in Europe. The researchers went over to Europe because the European Union was expanding. They are doubling in size.

Take Back Time | Maggie Jackson | Uncertainty

Uncertainty: It’s a huge mistake to think that the unease is something to retreat from.

 

It was a time of tremendous uncertainty and unpredictability in the marketplace. They did a longitudinal study and asked CEOs, “What did you think would happen?” There was a group that said, “This will be great for my company.” Another portion of CEOs said, “This is going to be a terrible disaster for my company.” To the researchers’ actual surprise, there was a third group, the ambivalent CEOs, who said, “I’m not sure. This could be could. It could be bad.”

A year later, when the researchers returned, it was the ambivalent CEOs who had been more resourceful and inventive. They went out there and set up a new factory in Central Europe. They also were more inclusive. They looked for multiple possibilities. They heard multiple perspectives. The CEOs who had, when sure of the way, done nothing or stuck to the status quo. Uncertainty spurs us. It provokes us to get to the edge of what we know and to admit that and operate in that space where we need to wake up and start to investigate. It is an invitation to learn.

My new book is coming out in September 2024. I talk about reset moments. That moment that you are listening for that signal, that this is feeling uncertain, and that’s a reset moment to say, “Let’s step back, get some perspective, and be open to where this can take us so that we can align around what we do next.” I love that because those are able to know what we’re listening for. You said, “Listen for uncertainty as a signal.” How would you know that the marketplace is all over the place? What are some other signals that help us to know that we are feeling uncertain because sometimes we can’t name what we’re feeling?

If you feel there are choices, the language I use is, “It could be this way. It could be that way.” To use a more homebound example, if your kid wakes up with a cold and you think, “Is it spring allergies or is it COVID?” Your mind does reach for possibilities when you’re under stress. If you’re flat out fearing the unknown, which is another entire physiological response, and in that time, if you’re fearing what’s going on, your circulatory system begins to shift blood, energy, and glucose away from the extremities, including the brain. The time when we’re frozen is when we’re fearing the unknown. Whereas if you’re unsure, you’re like. “I wonder if. Maybe it could be that.” That’s one way to recognize it and to recognize the difference between fear and the good stress of uncertainty.

It’s also interesting to note that we can lean into uncertainty. Is this all automatic? I talked about the heartbeat and cortisol levels. Some of it is your physiological reactions. You can’t do that much about it. This cascading effect of the stress of uncertainty is something that we can lean into. What do I mean by that?

In studies of learning and dynamic environments, the people who were stressed when the situation was most unpredictable, when the rules changed, or when they didn’t know what was coming. Those were the people who were more accurate, better performers. You can lean in by recognizing that uncertainty is a signal and good stress. It’s rolling up your cognitive shirt sleeves by knowing one of the stress hormones that’s released when you’re uncertain is norepinephrine. That’s related to cognitive effort.

You can think to yourself, “The rules changed. My client is on the verge of quitting. The marketplace is going haywire in the stocks.” Uncertainty is all about keeping your head and harnessing the moment. You can recognize that this is the time you all are going to feel a little stressed. In fact, you need to lean into it, not retreat from it. That’s going to help you out.

Lean into the uncertain, not retreat from it. That’s going to help you out.Lean into the uncertain, not retreat from it. That's going to help you out. Click To Tweet

You talked about choices in our mind going into scenarios of what it could be. I pulled out some of those potential reset moments, those moments to recognize if a client quits, rules change, the staff is reduced, and you have a limited resource, and you also said choices. If we feel like we don’t have any choices, that’s a good time to reset and challenge the uncertainty because we always have more choices.

It tells you that we’re narrowed in our thinking, and we’re choosing fight, flight, or freeze. We have a fourth option, which is focus. With uncertainty, you said, “It widens our focus.” In a way, the reaction of what’s happening is we’re fighting fight, flight or freeze or focus or allow, lean in and widen our focus. It’s another F word. That works with the four Fs of stress and uncertainty.

It’s interesting that this uncertainty is related to curiosity. There are personality measurements of the curious persona. It’s a new field of study. Curious people tend to read difficult books or ask difficult questions. One of the pillars of a curious person who is actively curious, not armchair curiosity but actively curious and works with their curiosity, is the ability to handle the stress of the unknown.

In other words, they know it is awkward to ask a difficult question in a meeting. They know that it is sometimes difficult to see art that disturbs you or a movie. They’re the people who do it anyway. They go forth into it. That’s the active curiosity. It has a lot to do with harnessing that good stress. I wouldn’t want to even use the word comfortable. This is not about comfort. It’s about being willing to challenge yourself.

It’s interesting because those are types of people that I call that they have a reset mindset. They live in that readiness space, ready to pivot, to be challenged, to challenge others and use that as a dynamic reassessment of when constantly being in that place of, I haven’t used the word curiosity, but I do believe that that would be a trait of somebody who has that type of mindset. Hearing those words, I’m curious about your scientific background and all the writing that you did. Hearing the words like reset mindset, what would that mean to you and your world?

Prediction Error

It is as well as waking up to the fact that the world has changed and the world is dynamic. There are broken expectations. Going hand in hand with that, and this has everything again to do with uncertainty, is the fact that you are setting forth from what you know. Your expectations are broken. Scientists call this the prediction error. That’s the code word for the new, the murky, whatever you’re being confronted with or whatever you’re seeking.

We’re talking about two different things. One is surprises that hit you, but the other is surprises you seek, which is the nature of innovation. It’s important to understand that one of the most important aspects of all that I’m talking about is that being unsure is moving you away from the familiar and the routine. That’s a cardinal rule of creativity, curiosity, inventive thinking, and even good problem-solving. We have to get unstuck from what is familiar.

We can see that the second pillar of the importance of uncertainty is the fact that it’s not a spur, a provocation to wake us up, but it’s also a space of possibilities. Uncertainty, by its nature, is a time and space. It is the space between question and answer. It allows us to expand that space, not to rush to outcome or leap to judgment.

What if we had a car that only ran at one speed or had no brakes? That car would be highly unable to adapt to the road and the landscape. Rushing for answers is like that car. The fix-it mentality sets us back. By being uncertain, you are not only waking up to the world, but you’re also inviting yourself to inhabit, for a couple of moments, a space of possibilities.

We can see this with experts. The traditional definition of an expert is one who crews 10,000 hours. They know what to do. That’s our image of what an expert is. The surgeon who walks into the room and knows what to do. This expertise, which we’ve put on a pedestal, only works in benign, predictable environments because those knowing what to do are based on the mental models of what’s worked in the past. These so-called routine experts tend to fail in new, unpredictable environments. What we need to be is adaptive experts. They’re the ones who know when and how to be unsure.

Routine experts tend to fail in new, unpredictable environments. What we need to be is adaptive experts. Click To Tweet

Adaptive experts is a new science. They spend more time diagnosing a problem than even novices do. This is across many disciplines, from chess to finance. Routine experts have years of experience across disciplines that are not correlated or weekly correlated with skill and accuracy. They’re resting on old solutions, whereas the adaptive ones are waking up. They tend not to look at one option in diagnosing a problem, which 80% of business decisions only examine one option before moving forward.

I talk about that all the time. It’s crazy how quickly we jump to a conclusion and action without thinking. I do a bunch of exercises in some workshops that show people that they’re simply cutting themselves off from the best solutions. The first solution isn’t the best solution. Back to your adaptive experts. They’re asking more questions and taking more time to find solutions or ask questions and analyze different options and opportunities.

Both in diagnosing the new situation and also in finding solutions. It’s also important that, on average, the potential solutions or diagnosis be tested in four different ways. That often gets forgotten. We often think, “Yes, we have to widen our frame.” It is difficult to do. You also have to widen and deepen. After scientists who call this deliberation style progressive deepening, you want to take an option, test it, and evaluate it in multiple different ways, even through something called negative testing, which is checking that your first assumption wasn’t right.

An anesthesiologist in the operating room who attributes this problem to breathing, the patient’s breathing to X tube should go back and double-check. That’s negative testing. Roger Martin is a great organizational management thinker. He is the Head of the Rotman School of Business in Toronto. He says, “The best experts’ resting state is not a certainty.” They stay curious.

Going back to the idea of being wakeful but also going in deep or, in other words, having a car, a mind that’s not on one speed but has multiple speeds and therefore is adaptable. One important tip is cue words. This is something that’s been borrowed from athletics. If you are in a stressful moment, it’s easy to leap to outcome thinking.

Outcome thinking is like, “Is my presentation bombing? What’s going to happen? I won’t get my bonus.” Studies show that at the top of professional tennis players, if the trophy is shown at the side of a court, and in the top tournaments, the best player in the match tends to struggle. They might not always lose, but they struggle. They become the underdog because they’re suddenly rewarded or outcome-focused.

What you do is use a keyword such as, “I thought of be in the now.” Use the keyword to pull yourself back into the process, which means you’re pulling yourself back into the moment. You’re going to pick up on the nuances, perspectives, multiple options, and multiple diagnostic possibilities. You’re reverting back to the process that inhabits the question and the productive uncertainty.

I talk about those cues because they’re quick and easy. We can all relate to something that we have used in the past, which was a cue that helped us get to the present. In my book, I talk about a cue that I found from love and logic. They say I love you too much to argue. In the heat of the moment, there’s that little phrase I can say to myself, I love you too much to argue. It calms me down, brings me into the moment, and connects me to my kids directly or my spouse.

I use the word reset in reset moments and reset mindset because I believe that reset is a great keyword. Words have energy and direction. If we choose the right words for us, it can immediately put us in the state that’s going to bring us back to the process, how we’re showing up, and how we want to be in that process. I even had one for tennis. I used to play tennis. I used to get all stressed out. It was this point. I’m focused on one point at a time. That was the thing that I had to keep saying to myself to stop worrying about, “This game is getting ahead of me.” Play this point.

Sports are always a metaphor for life. I heard a wonderful story about Jimmy Chin, the great filmmaker and Mount Everest climber. He’s an incredible mountaineer. He often takes novices out or people who are less highly skilled on the mountain than he is. Sometimes, he climbs up the rock face, but he stops. The new people are always freaked out. They don’t know why he’s stopping. The trajectory is up. We’ve got to do and scale that mountain. He says, “No, I am stopping to assess my possibilities, be uncertain for the moment, and take stock of what’s going on around me.” It’s a seemingly highly active form of inaction. That’s a great sum up of what uncertainty is for us.

We have to do that on a regular basis, to take that pause and take in around us and assess where we are, especially on the mountain. It’s a great metaphor because the weather changes quickly. One path that might have been a good path an hour ago might not be the best path for the way that they want to take it. You do have to test where the wind is coming from and how your team is doing. Are they feeling good and strong? That’s a great metaphor for dynamic check-in so that you’re checking your options and choosing the best option and the best way forward.

Pausing, deliberation, and uncertainty are an investment in getting a better answer. When we are constantly rushing to get answers, to be able to fix it, as in patching it or getting an answer, it’s like cramming for the test. If you want to read it for the long haul and get an answer that stands the test of time or includes other people’s perspectives and, therefore, is far stronger, you need to harness uncertainty.

Uncertain: The Wisdom and Wonder of Being Unsure

Take Back Time | Maggie Jackson | Uncertainty

Uncertain: The Wisdom and Wonder of Being Unsure

I’m loving this conversation. I could sit and talk to you all day. I love the references to the different neuroscience. It sounds like you are deep into the reading and all the different science that’s out there, which is fantastic. Where can people go to find more information about you? We can always have you come back on the show, but we have attention spans from people. We’ll call it a show right now.

My website, Maggie-Jackson.com, has reams of information, great podcast interviews, and press articles. There is a lot of information there. My book is available about everywhere. Uncertain: The Wisdom and Wonder of Being Unsure has been named one of the best books of the year in 2023. It came out in November 2023. It’s already well into its second printing. People are hungry for a meaty understanding of uncertainty.

Thank you so much for being here.

Thank you. This was a pleasure.

Thank you all for being here. You might’ve been uncertain coming in here whether you would get a good set of nuggets and things to think about, but I’m certain right now that you got a lot out of it. I want you to go and check out this book because we are in times that require us to be agile and have a reset mindset and be able to be these dynamic question-askers so that we can seek the best answers and not the first answer, as Maggie brought to our attention. Find out more about Maggie and check in with me. Send me an email, and let me know what you’d like to hear more of. I’d love to hear from you all. I’ll see you in the next episode.

 

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About Maggie Jackson

Maggie Jackson is an award-winning author and journalist with a global reach. Her new book, “Uncertain: The Wisdom and Wonder of Being Unsure”, explores why we should seek not-knowing in times of flux. Nominated for a National Book Award and named to three “Best Books of 2023” lists, Uncertain has been lauded as “incisive and timely…triumphant” (Dan Pink), “surprising and practical” (Gretchen Rubin) and “remarkable and persuasive” (Library Journal). Jackson’s acclaimed previous book “Distracted” sparked a global conversation on the steep costs of fragmenting our attention.

A former columnist for the Boston Globe, Maggie has written for The New York Times and many other publications worldwide. Her writings have been translated into multiple languages and widely covered by the U.S. and international press. She has spoken at venues from Google to Harvard Business School. She lives in New York and Rhode Island and can be reached at www.maggie-jackson.com

 

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