Nathan Furr discusses how to reframe your relationship with uncertainty to open up to new possibilities.
- How to turn the fear of the unknown into an excitement for possibilities
- The six types of risk and how to manage them
- How to deal with the frustrations of failure
Nathan Furr is a professor of strategy and innovation at INSEAD in Paris and an expert in the fields of innovation and technology strategy. His bestselling books include The Innovator’s Method and Innovation Capital. Published regularly in Harvard Business Review, MIT Sloan Management Review, Forbes and Inc., he is an Innosight Fellow, has been nominated for the Thinkers50 Innovation Award, and works with leading companies including Google, Microsoft, Citi, ING, and Philips.
- Book: The Upside of Uncertainty: A Guide to Finding Possibility in the Unknown
- Website: UncertaintyPossibility.com
- Study: “Prospect Theory: An Analysis of Decision under Risk” by Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky
- Study: “Drop Your Tools: An Allegory for Organizational Studies” by Karl E. Weick
- Book: The Colossus of Maroussi by Henry Miller
- Book: Finite and Infinite Games by James Carse
- Film: Son of a Lion
- Past episode: 210: How to Generate Many Creative Ideas with Tina Seelig
Nathan, welcome to How to be Awesome at Your Job.
Thank you for having me.
Well, I’m excited to chat about your book The Upside of Uncertainty: A Guide to Finding Possibility in the Unknown. But, first, I was a bit intrigued about you’ve got a Master’s in Later British Literature, you’ve written some novels and some screenplays, and you’re a professor of innovation and technology strategy. That’s a fun combo and I’m just curious how your love of literature fuels insights into uncertainty and innovation.
Interesting. Well, first off, I think it’s a great example that, of uncertainty itself, that life is full of curveballs because there’s other things in there. I worked in strategy consulting, I went and did a PhD at Stanford in strategy in entrepreneurship, so very different than literature. But I think, really, what is literature about? It’s really about big ideas that teach us how to live.
And so, maybe, in a way, nobody’s asked me that question before. Not many people know that part of my history. But, really, I think what you put your finger on is my interest in big questions.
And, for me, uncertainty is like the biggest question of all because, in the field that I’m currently in, I’ve been in for more than two decades, yeah, we talk about management. Where did management come from? What problem was it built to solve? It was really something we created during the industrial revolution when the landscape shifted from this ecosystem of tiny firms, craftspeople doing their work, to this landscape of giant firms, textiles, and automobiles, and oil, and steel, and suddenly you needed somebody to coordinate and organize all that.
And so, management, really, has been so focused on this question of, “How do we coordinate, organize, and control, and optimize?” It really hasn’t spent very much time on this other equally important question, which is, “Well, what about when the world changes? What about when we need to create? What about when something disrupts? And what are the tools for a world of uncertainty?” And so, that’s kind of like really the question I’ve been obsessed with in my management and academic careers, has been, “What are the theories, tools, and frameworks for a world of uncertainty?”
Intriguing. Well, I’d love to dig into a few of those in particular. I’m thinking about the book, The Upside of Uncertainty. What’s sort of behind the title there? There’s some upside we should be enjoying?
Yeah. Listen, we’re all wired to be afraid of uncertainty. So, for example, my co-authors, who are neuroscientists, will point you to these studies that show how our brains light up in the face of uncertainty. So, that’s an evolutionary wiring we can’t help. But, as I mentioned, I’ve been studying these kinds of questions for a while and, in particular, I’ve gotten to interview innovators. So, over the last 20 plus years, some of the biggest names that you’ve heard of and some of the most interesting people who you haven’t heard of.
But what I noticed in interviewing those innovators is that to do anything new, they all had to go through uncertainty first. And I was so curious about that because I wouldn’t say that I’m like naturally good at that, that that’s where I’m oriented, so I wanted to learn from them, “So, wait, how did you get the courage to do that? How did you get the courage to leave your job? How did you go through the obstacles when it looked like everything was going to fall apart?” So, really, the genesis of this book was that question.
I’ve been interviewing people for about 10 years on this topic, about, “Well, so, how did you fit and learn to face uncertainty? And what are you doing? How do you navigate it? How do you manage it? And what happens when something goes wrong?”
And so, really, what we did is compiled those interviews and the existing research to come up with some practical things that can help.
Okay. Well, I’m excited to dig into some of this how. But, first, I’d love to touch upon a why. What’s really at stake for professionals looking to be awesome at their job if they maintain their current level of skill and discomfort with uncertainty versus gain as much mastery as we humans with our brain hardware and biochemistry can do?
Yeah, that’s a great question because here’s the dilemma. Whether you try to avoid uncertainty or not, it’s going to happen to you. So, by many, many measures, it appears that the world is becoming more dynamic and more uncertain. So, a very rough proxy, the World Uncertainty Index put together by some economists at Stanford and IMF shows steady increase of uncertainty over the last several decades. And, yeah, there are many other measures of this that point to greater dynamism and greater change, and I think it’s best summarized by the former CEO of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream, Jostein Solheim.
He, basically, said, “The world is ambiguity and paradox, it’s everywhere. The world is getting harder and harder for people who like the linear route forward in any field.” And what I think he’s putting his finger on is what I was feeling, which is, yeah, maybe they had better parents and schools than I did, but I certainly wasn’t taught, “How do I deal with uncertainty?”
And here’s the thing, when we have low skills, we tend to fall into these maladaptive behaviors, which are also, by the way, well-documented in the literature, like threat rigidity and rumination and so forth. So, if we have tools, then we can approach it with greater calm, greater courage and resolve, but I’d say the stake is even bigger than that. Because the thing I learned in kind of going through this, I was so obsessed with uncertainty, but what really became clear to me is that, again, like those innovators I told you about, they only got to new and different things, to the possibilities, by going through the uncertainty.
And so, uncertainty and possibility are really two sides of the same coin. And so, if we’re to spend our lives avoiding uncertainty or dealing with it poorly, what we’re really doing is shortchanging ourselves on possibility. Now, some of you might be saying, “Oh, that’s real nice, Nathan, but I just lived through the pandemic, and that stunk. And I didn’t choose that.” Well, you’re right, so I want to separate.
There’s planned uncertainty. When you, say, go start a new job or make a geographic move. There’s also unplanned uncertainty that happens to you. But my thesis, my proposal would be that is if we had better tools, even that unplanned uncertainty, we can make more out of it, we can suffer less in the situation, and we can discover, or at least unpack, the possibilities that might still be there, acknowledging, of course, there’s downsides. I want to acknowledge that but we tend to get focused on that and not on the upside.
Okay. Well, now, before we delve into those skill-builders, we’re saying the word uncertainty a lot, and I have a view of what that might mean and it’s broad and inclusive of much. What is your definition and some places where you think the everyday professional sees a lot of uncertainty?
So, yeah, there’s a lot of definitions out there. So, most folks probably have heard of VUCA, which stands for volatility, uncertainty, complexity, ambiguity. So, yeah, if you allow me a nerdy moment, complexity is where you have many nodes and many connections between those nodes. And so, the complexity is because if you changed one variable, you don’t know how it’s going to affect other variables.
And risk is more…there was an economist in the 20th century, very important economist, Frank Knight, who described risk as when you know the variables and you know the probability distribution, you just don’t know the outcome. So, think about like rolling dice. But uncertainty is where you maybe don’t know the variables, you don’t know the probability distribution, for sure, and if you want to get even a little bit higher-stakes uncertainty, what we might call ambiguity, it’s where you don’t even maybe have the mental model to make sense of it.
And so, here’s the thing about uncertainty and ambiguity, it requires different tools. Frank Knight, the economist, was very clear about that, but it happens to us a lot more than we realize. So, think about people talking about disruption all the time, disruptive technologies. Well, that is not risk, friends. That is total uncertainty. There are so many things we don’t understand about that, so many variables we don’t know, so much lack of information, new mental models, how to think about it.
Or, we don’t know what’s coming down the pipe in terms of recession, or rebound, or what’s next. All of those things are uncertain. And so, the challenge, I think, is that we’re wired almost because it’s frightening to us and we haven’t been given the tools to kind of avoid the uncertainty, but I kind of feel like if you tried to make your life as certain as possible, what you would certainly discover is how boring it is.
And, in fact, one of my favorite interviews was with the head of a big gambling organization, and he said, “What we do is we call it among ourselves reverse insurance because it’s for people whose lives have gotten so predictable and they want to actually introduce some uncertainty back into their lives.” So, for me, uncertainty is really a lack of information or think of it like fog in the landscape. You can’t see what’s ahead, so what do you do? Do you stay safe and wait?
And what I would encourage people to think about, I think about it for myself, think about the things you’re proud of, that you’ve done in your life. It could be a career move you made, it could be a relationship, it could be that you went away to school when nobody else was doing that, whatever it is. Think of what you’re proud of and look back, and I am sure there was a great deal of uncertainty in that journey to that possibility.
So, for me, it’s just if those are the things we’re proud of, and they took on uncertainty, we had to go through uncertainty, then I want to get better at it so I can get more of those things.
All right. I’m sold. So, Nathan, tell us, how do we get better at it?
Oh, man, so that’s a big question because we interviewed so many fun people, we interviewed entrepreneurs, scientists, people who won the Nobel Prize, but also many professions have a lot of uncertainty in them, like, say, for example, paramedics and so forth. But to be fair, we came up with 30 plus tools. Now, that’s a lot to remember.
So, what we decided to do was to organize these tools, kind of grouped them roughly around a metaphor of a First Aid cross, but a First Aid cross for uncertainty, so you can get help. And the First Aid cross has four arms or four categories of things to remember. Number one, to reframe the uncertainty from something that is going to cause you a loss to looking at the possibility instead.
Number two, there’s ways you can prime, like, think prime the wall so that the paint sticks to it or prime the pumps so the water comes out. There are things you can do to prime or prepare so that when uncertainty happens, you’re calmer and you’re ready for it. Number three, there’s ways to do or to take action. The number one thing to resolve uncertainty is to take action. But we learn from a robust body of literature and innovation entrepreneurship, there’s ways to take action that are better than others in circumstances of the unknown.
And then, lastly, the fourth category is to sustain, this idea that we will face setbacks, there will be anxiety that’s part of uncertainty, so how do we sustain ourselves through that so we can get to the possibility?
Okay. Well, then, let’s hear some tools. Like, maybe let’s perhaps drop into a scenario that professionals might find themselves faced with, like, “Hey, do I take on a new job?” “Do I take on a new project, or role, or responsibility?” So, in the midst of that, there’s some uncertainty, there’s some discomfort. How do we, say, use some reframing tools to get better?
So, reframing really sounds simple. It really is this idea that the way we describe something changes how we think, decide, and act. Now, it sounds kind of fluffy but there’s actually a very robust body of research in psychology and behavioral economics that shows that we have different reactions. So, there’s a very famous study by Kahneman and Tversky, won the Nobel Prize, which showed that.. in the experiment there was a disease and they offered people two treatments. I’m simplifying it but it basically was one treatment has a 5% chance of failure and the other treatment has a 95% chance of success.
And what they find, people vastly prefer the 95% chance of success, even though they’re statistically identical. Why? Well, because we are wired to be loss averse and gain seeking, so we’re afraid of losses, and that’s a real problem with uncertainty because, for most of us, uncertainty feels like, “Ooh, I might lose something.” And so, if we can reframe it in terms of the possibility, then it’s much easier to take action to face the unknown.
So, you asked, facing a new job. I faced this myself. I was at a university in the US and I was on track for what we call tenure, which is the job for life. So, you heard professors “Publish or perish.” This is the moment where you perish, or you publish enough and you survive. So, I was kind of making it, we’re living in the US, we’re comfortable, and everything was good, and then we got invited to do this visiting professor thing in France, and we just fell in love with it.
Anyway, over a course of years, eventually, the university I’m at made me an offer, but it was a hard offer to take because I had kids in high school, I was making a good living, everything was stable and safe, we had in-laws up the street, five houses, I was going to get tenure for sure versus going to France, where, oh, my gosh, the standard was like about double my current university, so I might perish. I was going to actually make less money, my kids were going to have to go to a different culture, a different language. One of them at a high school, actually, so there was a lot of uncertainties there.
And I found that when I compared the knowns of my current situation, all the good things of my current situation, to the unknowns of this other situation, this big move, it was very scary, but that was totally unfair because I was comparing my gains to my potential losses. When, instead, I compared my gains to my gains. So, yes, I have these good things here at home now, but what about what could happen, what could be the gains of taking the risk of this new situation?
And when I did that, it became much clearer, in fact, the greatest moment of clarity was when I shared it with my grandmother, who said to me very simply, she said, “Nathan, parents teach their children to live their dreams by living their own dreams.” And, for me, that really clicked. Now, if none of that resonates for you, I guess I’ll just share with you one of the interviews we did with Jeff Bezos way back in the era when he was not one of the wealthiest people on the planet, and he was kind of reflecting on Amazon.com, which was a modest success at that time. It wasn’t what it was now.
But he was reflecting on how he made the decision back in the 1990s, a time when the internet was the wild west, we would never put our credit cards in on an online site back in 1995. And he had this idea for selling books online but it was just such a crazy and different thing, and people were like, “Oh, that seems really scary.”
And at the time, Bezos was working on Wall Street at DE Shaw, like one of the best, most prestigious jobs you could ever have, if he left his job, he was going to leave his bonus on the table. He went to his boss and told his boss about the idea. And after like a two-hour discussion and walking around Central Park, the boss said, “Jeff, this could be a good idea but it’s probably a better idea for somebody who doesn’t already have a really good job, so why don’t you think about it.”
And what Jeff Bezos told us at the end of that, he said he thought for a while and then the framework he came up with was he called it a regret-minimization framework, which was, “I want to project myself out to age 80 and look back on my life and ask ‘What would I regret?’” And he said, “I wouldn’t regret trying this thing, participating in this thing called the internet, and failing. But the one thing I would regret is never having tried.” And so, I think that’s another lens.
So, in summary, what I’ve said is two tools here, is one is to compare the gains to the gains, or the opportunities to the opportunities. We tend to compare the uncertainties of the new thing to the known of the existing thing. And then, number two, to ask ourselves about regret, “What will we regret when we’re age 80?” And, to be totally fair, there are times in our life when we would regret trying and failing, and then that’s a good answer, that’s just as legitimate of an answer.
Okay. Cool. And that provides a fresh perspective when you zoom out at that level and it’s really handy. And I like what you said right there at the end, is there could be times where it’s like, “Oh, yes, I do regret removing my children from, I don’t know, their best friends, an excellent environment, family, whatever.”
Like, that could, when considering a move to a totally new continent, that could be something that pops up when you take that lens, or it could be just the opposite, “I regret not exposing my children to this really cool new different culture and way of life and perspective and language that can broaden their horizons and views in so many healthy ways.” You could fairly come out on either side of that question and they’re both valid.
Yeah, Pete. And I want to be clear, it was hard. Like, we got to France, the kids at school were total bullies. I mean, it was awful. We had to move the kids, like there were all kinds of hard things, but we are so grateful we did it. Why? Because part of it was we saw the education here isn’t just what they learn in math class. The education is what you learn from doing something different and persisting. And the biggest education, which, now it’s been long enough.
The biggest education point was, “Go live your dreams.” And now when I say it’s been long enough, the kids are starting to come back and show that they can be bold, and that they do want to live their dreams. And so, for me, if they walk away with that experience, then maybe I’ve given them the best lesson I can.
Beautiful. Well, let’s talk about the prime set of tools now.
Yeah, and especially with keeping in mind, people who want to be awesome at their job, maybe I could tell another…I didn’t mean to tell a lot of personal stories here, but maybe I could tell another personal story, which was when I was doing my PhD at Stanford, remember I’d worked before and so I felt a little bit uncomfortable sometimes not working for several years to go do a PhD.
Anyway, I was in Silicon Valley, and in Silicon Valley, the heroes are not us nerdy professors, they are the entrepreneurs who create things. So, I started to feel bad about myself, like, “Wow, if I had any courage, I would go become an entrepreneur. I would quit the program and just jump out and do something.” And, finally, it was just boiling over and I remember reaching out to one of my mentors there, Professor Tina Seelig.
Oh, she’s been on the show.
Oh, yeah. Okay, great. Yeah, Tina is amazing. I love Tina. Okay. So, Tina, yeah, you can look her up. She’s a really lovely person. So, we went to lunch together, and I confessed to Tina, like, “Tina, if I had any courage, I’d quit this program and go be an entrepreneur, but I’m just not a risk-taker.” And she said to me, “What do you mean you’re not a risk-taker?” I said, “Yeah, just I don’t have the courage to just jump off the cliff.”
And she said, “Do you really think there’s only one kind of risk?” And I was like, “Well, what do you mean, Tina?” She said, “In my mind, there’s financial risk, there’s intellectual risk, there’s social risk, there’s emotional risk, we can go on and on. You seem like somebody who is comfortable taking on intellectual risk, let’s say, talk about something like uncertainty, but you have four kids.” At the time, my wife and co-author was starting a clothing line so it wasn’t generating any money. We’re just living off the student loans, basically.
She said, “You have four kids, you’re living off on student loans so you don’t want to take a financial risk. Well, that makes a lot of sense.” And what she was trying to teach me is that we can actually do a little bit of self-reflection to ask, “What are the risks we’re comfortable with and we have an aversion with? And where you have an affinity, you want to play to your strengths. And where you have an aversion, you just want to be aware.”
So, for me, being a professor, actually made an immense amount of sense because I could kind of pad down that financial risk but I could take intellectual and social risks. And so, again, number one lesson, “Where do you have an affinity? Where do you have an aversion?” But the second lesson I learned from another mentor at Stanford, Professor Bob Sutton, and what he taught me was, “Be careful that you don’t let your risk aversions hold you back from the things you most want.”
And the story was, at the time again, things are super tight, we’re packing peanut butter and jelly sandwiches from home just to save a couple bucks on lunch. And I’m in class with him and a bunch of other PhD students, and he just tells us, “Oh, yeah, when I was a PhD, I borrowed the equivalent of $30,000 to get my research done.” And I’m like the top of my head blew off, I was like, “While I’m packing this peanut butter and jelly sandwich, you like dropped 30 grand. Like, what? Why would you do that?”
And he just said, “It was simple. I knew that the most important thing for me getting a good job and keeping it, in that context, was the quality of my research, so why not put some money into it?” And it was one of those moments where I had this aha of like, “Oh, so if you just let your aversions be aversions, it can hold you back from the things you most care about. And the good news is you can actually build up your risk tolerances by taking smaller risks, little small risks, and that will get you more comfortable so you can take bigger and bigger risks.” And so, I’ve done that around financial risk aversion.
Another way to think about it, one of my favorite interviews was with a guy, David Heinemeier Hansson. He’s like the guy behind Ruby on Rails and Basecamp. He’s a startup legend. He is very clear – he hates financial risk. So, how do you hate financial risk and be an eight-time serial entrepreneur? Well, he always has something on the side that’s paying the bills. First, it was a consulting gig, and then later when he had some software that was selling, it was that. But he always had something to pay the bills on the side and then he can do a project and not feel so stressed about the financial risk he’s taking.
So, I would say it can do a lot of good for an individual. And, by the way, I sometimes coach organizations through this as well because their risk affinities and aversions hold them back as well. But know your risks, map them out, ask, “Where am I strong? Where am I weak? Where is maybe an aversion holding me back? And how could I kind of build up some comfort with that so I can act well when that moment comes, where I have to face some uncertainty? And where are my strengths and how do I play to those?”
It’s a very practical thing. Maybe you’re somebody who thinks up a lot of ideas and you just don’t speak up about it in, say, a meeting or somewhere. This might be a moment of reflection to say, “Hey, maybe I should step out there a little bit and speak up about these things,” or whatever it may be. Anyway, that would be one of the ideas we drew from the book is to know your risks.
That’s great. And I’m thinking now, so Tina highlighted a number of categories of risk there: financial, intellectual, relational. Can you maybe name a few more to prime the pump of ideas for listeners?
Yeah, for sure. And let me give a little brief explanation. So, obviously, there are many kinds, so I would encourage you to do what makes sense to you. But the ones we used are intellectual, so your willingness to kind of come up with new ideas. Obviously, financial is your willingness to take a financial risk. Social risk is, say, with acquaintances, so you go to a party or a networking event, your willingness to go out and speak to people, or, say, stand up in front of a crowd and talk.
Emotional risk would be for your more intimate relationships, so that may be like being willing to say the thing that needs to be said.
Physical risks, so maybe like it’s getting out, doing action sports. One of my executive students said, “I hated physical risks but then when I was kind of entering the executive ranks, my job was shifting from kind of tamping down risks and uncertainty, to actually having to take some uncertainty and risk, and so I knew I needed to get better at it but I didn’t know how. But I knew I really was scared of physical risks, so I said, ‘I’m going to take a kickboxing class, which is a super physical confrontational sport.’” So, he takes a kickboxing course, and he said, “It was fun, it was energizing, and it made me more comfortable taking other kinds of risks.” So, that would be physical.
And then I would maybe just add political, which is your willingness to stand up for change, speak up for change, whether that be in an organizational setting, or, say, in a citizenship setting. So, it’s financial, intellectual, social, emotional, physical, and political.
You could, of course, substitute something else, but, yeah, it’s up to you.
Yes. Well, consultants love their categorization systems and arguing over them, so I’ll just roll with yours.
So do academics. It turns out so do academics, so, yeah, just having those arguments.
So, let’s talk about some of the tools within the do category.
Yes. So, the do category is very interesting because it’s really one of the sections that draws most heavily on the research in the fields of innovation and entrepreneurship. And if I were to summarize it very briefly, it would be taking action is one of the best ways to resolve uncertainty. And one of the best ways to take action is to break the thing down into small steps and run a series of experiments.
And we see that over and over in the entrepreneurship literature, “How do you learn quickly under uncertainty?” So, for example, if you look at the research on startup accelerators, so startup accelerator, essentially, accepts in a class of entrepreneurs for three months and they coach them into, hopefully, a successful startup. So, what are the best practices of the best startup accelerators?
Well, let me pose it to you as a puzzle. Let me turn it over to you. How would you make a great startup accelerator? So, for example, you know that in the startup accelerator that you want your entrepreneurs to talk to people. So, should you force them to talk to as many people as fast as possible up front, like just drink out of the fire hydrant? Or, should you spread out those interactions with customers, mentors, investors, executives, over the space of the three months that they have time to absorb all that information?
And, oh, by the way, these startups, some of them might be doing slightly competitive things. So, should you allow the startups to keep what they’re doing secret or should you force them to talk to each other and present to each other? Oh, and then, finally, these startups are doing different things. And so, should you customize the schedule of who they talk to, like what they’re doing, “They should only talk to people who seem to be relevant to them”? Or, should you make them talk to people who maybe seem irrelevant to them? Those are some interesting puzzles, right? Well, what does the research suggest?
What it suggests, and I’m going to draw the parallel to everyone who’s listening about uncertainty, is it’s better actually to talk to as many people as fast as possible. In fact, the great startup accelerators sometimes make people talk to 100, 200 people in the first month. Why? Because the major trap that they fall into is what we call premature certainty, which is they settle on what they think is the right way to do it too early, and talking to all those folks as fast as possible shakes them out of that and makes them realize, “Oh, I could make progress but I kind of need to change it a little bit.”
Oh, and, by the way, it’s also good to make those folks who seem competitive talk to each other because, it turns out, they can share how they solve similar problems. So, if you and I were both publishing a book tomorrow, even though we might feel competitive, it’s better for us to share information with each other and learn from each other. Oh, and then, lastly, even though I might think I should only talk to people who are like me, it’s actually incredibly useful to not customize. In other words, talk to everybody because sometimes your most valuable insights come from a place you wouldn’t think it would come from.
And one of the funniest stories was an entrepreneur who was creating this kind of funding platform, really for social initiatives and even like churches, and on his schedule was like the worst thing he could imagine, it was the VP of marketing from Playboy, and he was like, “Oh, this is like everything I hate. I’m not going to talk to this person.” But they forced him to talk to this person, and it turns out, like one of his best conversations. The VP was like, “Yeah, I want to get out of here, too. I’m actually a churchgoer, too. Like, here’s what you could do,” and gave him all these ideas, and this entrepreneur walked out, saying, “This was the best meeting I’d had.”
And so, how do I translate that for you? When you’re under uncertainty, it’s like you’re in a landscape with fog, and your task is to blow away that fog. And what we learned from startup accelerators is, A, talk to as many people as you can; B, talk to people who you even think are your competitors because they will reveal new ways of doing things and how to solve familiar problems; and number three, talk to people who are actually kind of a little bit different. You may not think they have much to offer because they might have something to offer.
And one of my favorites of this is the woman who was the founder behind GoldieBlox. This is engineering toys for girls, and she was being nice to this guy at the restaurant who was her waiter and was kind of telling this waiter about engineering toys for girls, “Why would this waiter care?” And the waiter was like, “Oh, that’s really cool. You know what, my aunt is actually one of the editors at,” I think it was like The Atlantic or The New York Times or something, “and she would really love this. Let me introduce you to her.” So, that, to me, is, again, as we think about taking action, one of the many tools about kind of learning quickly through the unknown.
That’s cool. Now, many of these actions that we talked about are talking to people and/or running small experiments. Can you share with us, beyond talking to folks, what are some great actions that help us gather wisdom in a jiffy?
So, maybe I’ll go a little bit different direction and share something a little more counterintuitive. So, before I do that, I’ll say some of the other tools are things like a term we use called bricolage, which is make do with what you have. And one of my favorite interviews with the gentleman who was responsible for turning around the city of Melbourne in Australia from being one of the most decrepit downtown courses, really, like zombie apocalypse-looking to being one of the most livable cities in the world. In fact, voted that way seven years in a row, even though he was given no budget and, essentially, no resources. So, how do you turn around such a dire situation?
And one of the things he did is say, “Well, what do I have a lot of that nobody’s valuing because we have so much of it?” And Melbourne, just because how it was laid out in the gold rush, had all these little they call them laneways, they’re like little alleys that end in a dead end, and they’re usually used for parking during the day, trash and social problems at night.
And he said, “Well, we’ve got so many of these laneways. What if I just put a pile on there so cars can’t go in there and tell the restaurants that are nearby, ‘You can use this space, put up some lights, keep it clean, but you can double the square footage of your restaurant if you keep this space clean’?” And he tried it on one laneway first, and it worked. People kind of ended up staying around at night and the laneway became a place where people wanted to be. And, by the way, today, Melbourne’s laneways are one of its major tourist attractions. But he kept doing, like making do with very little.
For example, there was a big property collapse, and he saw that as an opportunity. He said, “Great. Now, all these buildings downtown, the space I’m trying to revitalize, have no value, so I’m going to go to one of the owners of one of these old kinds of Victorian buildings and I’m going to make him a proposition. Your building, essentially, has no value to you. Let me renovate it into a mixed-use space, so businesses on the bottom, residents up above.”
Well, the owner of the building had no other alternative, and so he said, “Okay.” And it worked. Like, people moved into the apartments, he paid it off in half the time he expected, and then he rolled and did that to the next apartment, and the next building, and the next building. At the start of Rob Adam’s tenure, he’s the gentleman who renovated Melbourne, there were 650 occupied apartments in downtown Melbourne, 650, that’s it. By the end of his tenure, I think there was over 40,000 occupied apartments in downtown Melbourne.
And so, the whole principle there was often we say, “I don’t have the resources I need to get started,” but it’s really about asking sometimes, “What can I do with what I have? Or, what do I have so much of that nobody is really, maybe not even I am, realizing that it’s valuable?” If that feels too common sense to you, do we have time for me to tell you about one of the other tools from do?
Yeah, okay. So, how do you set yourself up so you can’t fail? That’s an interesting one. You’re going into uncertainty. You don’t know what you’re going to face. Is it possible to set yourself up so you can’t fail? Well, one of the ideas that was really counterintuitive to me, at least, because I was raised on the dogma of goals, like, you set a goal and you go do it.
But, remember, I told you about David Heinemeier Hansson, he’s a real contrarian. I loved that he was like, “Listen, if you’re doing something new, something doesn’t happen because you set a goal. The goal is total bull crap. Under uncertainty, you really don’t have control over whether that’s going to happen or not. Sure, set a goal. Sure, work hard and all that, but whether the market accepts what you’re doing or not is really not in your control directly. So, instead, act upon your values rather than your goals because that’s what you have control over.”
So, for example, for him, his value is, “I want to write great software, I want to treat my employees well, and I want to act ethically with the marketplace,” and he’s very clear. He just launched his big email platform Hey.com. he’s like, “At the end of that two years, if it failed, if that was a success in the market or not, sure, I’d do the growth hacking, I’d do all that stuff, but, really, whether the market accepts it or not, it’s not truly in my control. So, if that fails, but I have lived true to my values then I’ll be happy. I wrote great software. I learned tons of stuff. I treated people well, and I was ethical. I feel good about it.”
It sounds really soft and fluffy but, again, personal experience. So, think of me, I’m an academic, I’ve been working on this for like a decade, nobody’s talking about uncertainty, a pandemic happens. Suddenly, every thought leader in the universe is grounded, has nowhere to go, and all they’re talking about was uncertainty. I was freaking out, I’m like, “I’m going to get totally scooped here.” And my co-author said to me, “Well, what’s your values? Operate on your values because the world needs lots of perspectives but go out there, act according to your values, write the very best thing you can possibly write, and that you have control over. You don’t have control over if guru X or guru Y comes out and says what you already said.”
My co-author said, “If you really do that, according to your values, then what you say will be different and unique and a contribution.” And she was absolutely right, and I felt much, much calmer in that uncertainty of somebody’s going to beat me to it.
That’s cool. Thank you. And how about some sustain tools?
Yeah, sustain is a good one it’s really important because whether you choose uncertainty or uncertainty happens to you, it is going to make you anxious, nervous. There’s nothing wrong with you. That’s called being a human being. You’re wired to be that way, so you need to sustain yourself when there’s a setback.
So, we talked about a couple important ideas in there. One of them is known as emotional hygiene. So, it sounds sort of soft and fluffy but we forget that physical hygiene is a 20th century revolution. If you grew up before the 20th century, you would not know naturally that it made sense when you got a cut, you need to wash it up and keep it clean. And when we figured that stuff out that you’ve got to do physical hygiene for your body, it increased the life expectancy 50%.
And I think we’re in the midst of a similar revolution where we realize that our emotions are real, too, and we have an emotional body. The problem is that when many of us try something new, and then there’s a setback, which, by the way, was inevitable – it was going to be different than you expected – then we beat ourselves up, and that’s like the worst kind of sustaining. So, you’ve got to sustain yourself, you’ve got to treat yourself with kindness, and also there’s ways you can be rational about it.
So, I did an interview with Ben Faringa. He won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 2016. He won it for this idea called molecular machines. So, if you’ve read those sci-fi articles about little robots running around your blood, curing diseases and things, it would be based on his invention. So, I asked him, “On the way to this breakthrough of this fundamentally new discovery, did you face uncertainty?” And he like laughed at my face as if that was like the silliest question I could ask. He’s like, “Of course.” And I said, “So, how did you deal with it?” And he said, “Listen, if you deal with uncertainty, you will have setbacks, you will fail. You just have to get good at it.”
And he said, “Allow yourself to feel the frustration for a few days, and then ask yourself, ‘What can I learn from it?’” And it turns out that “What can I learn from it?” question is just one in a set of different ways to approach a setback, “What can I learn from it?” is one, another is to focus on what you still have rather than what you’ve lost. Maybe one of my other personal favorites came from a gentleman named Ben Gilmore, who is a paramedic in Australia but he also writes books and makes films. So, that’s a full-time job, paramedic, and, by the way, has a lot of uncertainty. You never know when you break down the door, what you’re going to find on the other side.
But I think the story he told me that really inspired me is he wanted his life to be interesting and adventurous, and he’d always dreamed of riding his motorcycle through the Khyber Pass. And so, he saves up his money, and he goes out there, and he’s got his motorcycle, and while he’s like staying in the hotel, his motorcycle gets impounded, and he’s like, “What do I do now?” And he says, “Well, I’m going to go on foot. I’m going to go anyway.”
So, he was walking on foot through the Khyber Pass, and he meets this family, they’re residents of the region and they’ve had this generational business of making weapons, so guns. But the son, he doesn’t want to grow up to be a weapons maker. He wants to go to school. He wants to be a poet but he doesn’t have the money to go to school. So, Ben Gilmore goes back, and he said, “I want to make a film about this family,” and he goes back and he makes a film about this family, called Son of a Lion, which is, by the way, featured in the Cannes Film Festival, and does generate the funds to allow their son to go to school and follow his dream of being a poet.
But Ben faced so many obstacles on this journey, including the motorcycle getting impounded, but he went on to make other films, and he had experiences like he’d be in country with the film crew, and the budget would get pulled, and everybody flies home except the lead actor, and they’d rewrote the script and filmed that, and that became Australia’s entry into the Oscars.
And I asked Ben, “How do you keep going through these obstacles when you face these setbacks?” And he said, “Listen, my father read to me as a boy every night growing up. I love stories. I love to hear them.” He said, “Everybody loves the hero but the only way to become the hero is to go through the obstacles.” So, that’s what I always remember.
So, anyway, again, just to summarize. Feeling anxiety, feeling frustration, having setbacks is totally normal. So, there’s a way you can actually frame them so that you respond differently. Ben Faringa, the guy who was the Nobel Prize in Chemistry, he gets frustrated but he says, “What can I learn from it?” Ben Gilmore, this kind of wild and interesting character says, “Hey, the only way to become the hero is to go through the obstacles,” so many ways to address that and sustain yourself.
Oh, that’s beautiful. Thank you, Nathan. I remember when I was in the early stages of my business and times were lean. I remember thinking, ‘Hopefully, years from now, when I’m rolling in it, I’ll look back and say, ‘Ah, yes, that was the heroic struggle period.’”
So, what happened? Did you make it through?
Well, I did make it through. Yes, I have sufficient revenue to provide for the family, so mission accomplished.
And you know what, yeah, and even when we don’t make it through. Listen, hey, I try to tell my kids because my kids see me, they’re like, “Oh, dad got a PhD at Stanford. Now, he’s a professor at one of the top five strategy schools, and blah, blah, blah.” And I tell them, “What? Are you kidding me? Like, I got rejected from every graduate school I applied to at one time,” and I tell them about all of my failures along the way.
And I think when you dig into people’s stories, what you really discover is that there’s actually a lot of failure and setback and self-doubt. It’s just incredible. We discovered some really moving and interesting stories of self-doubt of people who are very, very successful and just to normalize that. That’s part of the journey.
Beautiful. Well, Nathan, tell me, anything else you want to make sure to mention before we shift gears and hear about some of your favorite things?
I think the one big takeaway I hope people have is that when they face uncertainty, whether it’s happened to them or they’ve chosen it, but something is going a little different than expected, is to ask the question, “How could this make me stronger? How could I turn this or flip this so that it can make me stronger?”
I think that’s a question I try to ask myself because, again, I get stuck, too, friends. I get stuck, too. But when I can do that, I actually wrote about it. We use this old term from the technology strategy literature called transilience, which is this kind of leaping from one state to another. And that, to me, is like the image, when like boiling water gets set free as steam in this moment of like you’re feeling stressed, you’re feeling anxious, and you say, “How do I turn this?” and you are able to see the possibility and be transilient, kind of leap to that state. That would be my hope. I think it’s a real powerful question to ask yourself.
All right. Thank you. Now, could you share a favorite quote, something you find inspiring?
One of my favorite books in the world is by Henry Miller, it’s called The Colossus of Maroussi, and he said something really strange. He said, “Magic can never be destroyed.” Well, what do you mean magic? Come on, I’m an empiricist, I’m a rationalist, what do you mean magic?
But we actually wrote in the book about magic. And what we mean by that is those leaps of insight, those moments of connection, that serendipity that you just can’t quite explain, and we saw so many of those as well. And so, what I would encourage people to do is to make some room for that. Put yourself in positions where you could have that. You don’t know in advance. But if you don’t get out there, you don’t talk, you don’t try, you don’t talk to the waiter, you won’t have those magical moments.
But I like that magic can never be destroyed because it’s there. We don’t understand how everything in the universe works but things can happen at just the right time.
Okay. And could you share a favorite study or experiment or bit of research?
So, one of my favorite studies or papers is called “Drop Your Tools.” It’s by a very famous organization theorist called Karl Weick. And what he looked at is the Mann Gulch fire disaster, which happened in Montana in 1949.
So, they established this program where smoke jumpers would jump out of the plane to where a big fire was and put it out. And it was a very successful program, and everything was going great when this fire starts in Mann Gulch in August, it’s really hot. And when the smoke jumpers land, they’re like, “Oh, we’ll put this fire out by 10:00 a.m. the next morning.” They’re so calm and assured, they stop and have dinner, and the fire is on one side of the ridge and kind of start heading downhill towards where there’s a river in the valley, so they have an escape route when the wind kicks up.
And this fire suddenly becomes really intense. It leaps the ridge and blocks their escape exits, so the trees by the river are on fire, and they start to run back up the hill. It’s this incredibly 70-degree slope. It’s incredibly steep and they’re racing and the fire is chasing them, 30-foot-high flames moving at this incredible speed. And the head of the fire crew does something that, today we understand, but that time didn’t make any sense. He said, “Drop your tools.” Now, they’d all been told, “Don’t ever drop your tools. That’s your lifeline,” and he said, “Drop your tools.” And he lights this escape fire, so he lights the grass around them on fire, and says, “Lay down here.”
Well, that didn’t make sense to them, so they kept running, and the foreman lies down the fire, covers himself up in a blanket, fire just rushes over him, and it goes on and it kills the rest of the team. And it became this moment, this kind of symbolic moment because it was this idea that we go around acting as if the world was stable and certain and makes lots of sense, when, in reality, it’s actually changing all the time. It’s very uncertain. It’s only these kinds of distinctive moments, like this fire crisis, where we really recognize it.
And what Karl Weick recommended coming out of that was that we need in life, and this is true on uncertainty, to adapt to what he calls an attitude of wisdom. What that means is you have just enough trust in yourself, in the idea, in your instinct that, “I should do something about this,” to take a step forward, and you doubt yourself just enough to listen to the voices that signal when it’s time to change course. Not every voice is the right voice but some of them signal that, “Yeah, you should change course when you hear that chorus enough times.”
And I think that’s a good metaphor for leaders under uncertainty because where leaders get themselves in trouble is they just doggedly pursue a path, try to plan their way to success and execute it, rather than what’s the attitude of wisdom in getting there.
All right. Thank you. And a favorite tool, something you use to be awesome at your job?
So, one of the tools we wrote about is called finite versus infinite games. So, James Carse was a modern philosopher at NYU, and in his book, he argued there’s really two ways of looking at life. There’s the finite view, which is we look at the game of life as the goal is to win, and the rules, the roles, the boundaries are all fixed, but we’re trying to win, we’re trying to be the best.
And infinite players, what do they do instead? They look at, instead, the joy of playing the game and they view the roles and rules and boundaries as being flexible or we can play with that. And maybe my favorite example of that comes from the Tour de France, which is happening right now where I live. And a very famous race between Jacques Anquetil and Raymond Poulidor. Jacque Anquetil was the favorite, he’d already won four Tour de Frances. Raymond Poulidor is kind of this…they call him the wholehearted son of the soil, and he didn’t really win much at all. In fact, he hadn’t won any races so far.
But there was this moment in this very rough, rugged terrain called The Puy de Dome. People described it like the teeth of a saw, just 10 kilometers of up and down. And instead of doing that thing where they draft behind each other, they raced neck and neck, shoulders, literally, like smash into each other, neither of them wanting to give an inch to the other one for 10 kilometers. And, finally, at the end, Pullidor, the wholehearted son of the soil, pulls ahead, and he wins that leg but he loses the race.
In fact, he races 14 times and he never wins, but everybody loved Pullidor. In fact, no racer was more beloved than Pullidor, and people tried to figure it out, they wrote dissertations about it, but I think the best way to summarize it is he was an infinite player. And at the end of his career, he reflected, somebody had said to him, “Raymond, you always had your head in the clouds. You didn’t take it seriously enough.”
And he said, “Maybe I didn’t because I never got up in the morning thinking, ‘How do I win?’ I’ve always thought, ‘This is so fun that I get to race. I can’t wait to race. How do I have fun racing?’” And so, for me, the tool I use is when I approach a situation that’s hard, and I have hard things, things I don’t want to do, tough things. I say, “What’s the infinite game I can play here? How could I play a little bit with the goal, with the rules, with the roles, with the boundaries?” That makes me curious.
Yeah, sometimes I succeed and sometimes I don’t, but I’d say I have a much more interesting career than I might have because I’ve tried to play that infinite game.
Okay. And if folks want to learn more or get in touch, where would you point them?
Well, we wanted to make the tools in the book The Upside of Uncertainty available to everybody, so we made a website called UncertaintyPossibility.com. So, remember my thesis, uncertainty and possibility are two sides of the same coin. So, you just type that out, dot com. And we actually described all the tools there so that they’re available and accessible.
Of course, I’d be super grateful if people went and bought the book or left a review, like on Amazon or something like that, because it is tough as an author getting the word out there. Writing a book is a little bit like a tree falling in the forest for nobody to hear unless people take action. So, thank you, though, for asking.
And do you have a final challenge or call to action for folks looking to be awesome at their jobs?
Well, I would say this, there is no doubt that we live in a world of increasing uncertainty, and I think if you can develop that ability early on, you’re going to have a huge leg up. And we talked about reframing at the beginning. Reframe any challenge in terms of the possibility. Even when we looked at empirical studies of a company facing disruption, the ones that succeed are the ones who, instead of focusing on the loss or the threat, they’re the ones who focused on the possibility.
All right. Nathan, this has been a treat. Thank you. I wish you much fun and adventure and possibility.
Yeah, thank you so much. It was fun.