Let Us Now Praise Uncertainty

A few weeks ago, I found myself in a conflict with someone in my work life. I felt he had clearly violated an agreement we'd made. My first reaction was righteous indignation. It was a familiar feeling. I was raised by a powerful mother who saw the world in stark terms: black and white, good and evil, right and wrong. She devoted her life to fighting for social justice and prided herself on uncompromising honesty. Her worldview deeply influenced mine.

In this case, I believed the person at work had acted badly. I was right, and he was wrong. My goal was to get him to see it my way.

A few days later, we had a chance to sit down together. Not surprisingly, the conversation was awkward at first. Then, to my surprise, as he explained himself, I felt myself beginning to understand why he made the choice he did.

It wasn't so much that I felt he was right, as that I felt less righteous. This was complicated. There was more than one way to look at it. It wasn't about good and evil. If I looked at the big picture, it still made sense to go forward together, even under the new terms.

I felt good about our resolution in the moment, but over the next day, my mood plummeted. At first I suspected it was some sort of repressed anger. As I reflected, however, I realized I was grieving a loss. It wasn't about him or our relationship. It was about me. I was grieving the loss of certainty.

What I felt slipping away — as it has been for some time in my life — was the sort of security and clarity that comes from believing you've got the answer. It feels good to know things for sure. It makes us feel safer, at least in the short term.
But certainty has its limitations. Very rarely, I've discovered, is certainty the outgrowth of careful consideration and deep understanding. Far more often, it's a primitive instinct — a way we defend against uncertainty, which understandably feels unsettling and even dangerous.

The problem is that certainty often oversimplifies and trivializes, especially in a world that has grown so immensely complex. "I don't do nuance," the notoriously unambivalent George W. Bush once said. But is there much doubt that Bush's easy certainty, lack of introspection and narrowness of vision served neither him nor our country well?

What we need from leaders (and ourselves) is greater capacity to see the big picture — to embrace nuance, subtlety and paradox rather than racing to choose up sides. Certainty creates a zero sum world in which my gain is necessarily your loss, and my being right means you must be wrong.

Just a simple example: Take out a piece of paper and make a list of the qualities that characterize you at your best. Next, make a list of the qualities you exhibit at your worst. If possible, do this before reading any further.

OK, so which one of these lists describes you? Plainly, the answer is both, opposite as they likely are. "Do I contradict myself?" Walt Whitman asked in "Song Of Myself." "Very well then, I contradict myself. I am large. I contain multitudes."

This is no argument for moral relativism or for anything goes. Some qualities are obviously more virtuous than others. But would you rather have a leader who recognizes, acknowledges and honestly struggles with his limitations, or one who pretends not to have any? Which person would you rather be?

From a neurological perspective, our pull to certainty is a byproduct of overtraining and over relying on the left hemisphere of our brain at the expense of the right. Choosing up sides between the two — privileging the left over the right, as we do — makes us narrower. Cultivating both hemispheres gives us access to a whole and far more powerful brain — both the rational, deductive, goal-driven capacities of the left, and the openness and big picture orientation of the right.

It's the same with even the most virtuous qualities. Overuse any one of them and they become destructive. Confidence untempered by humility turns into arrogance. Tenacity without flexibility becomes rigidity. Courage without prudence is recklessness.

Above all, certainty kills curiosity, learning, and growth. True confidence requires the willingness to give up the need to be right, the courage to say "I'm not sure," even when the pressure for answers is intense, and the hunger to forever learn and grow.

Here's a threshold question I now ask myself when I'm in conflict and convinced I'm right. "What would the other person say is happening here, and in what ways might that be true?"

Reprinted from Harvard Business Review

Tony Schwartz is President and CEO of The Energy Project, a company that helps individuals and organizations fuel energy, engagement, focus, and productivity by harnessing the science of high performance. Tony's most recent book, The Way We're Working Isn't Working: The Four Forgotten Needs that Energize Great Performance, was published in May 2010 and became an immediate The New York Times and Wall Street Journal bestseller. Follow him on Twitter @TonySchwartz.

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