it has been quite a while since I last wrote up a decent post for The Agoge, and that is an oversight that needs to be corrected. As I stated when I created that particular section of my site, Didactic Mind is not about complaining or observing – it is about preparing real men to take real action in a world that is rapidly falling apart. This is of paramount importance in a world in which men have largely forgotten how to be MEN.
Being a man requires having the strength of purpose, mind, body, and faith to make hard decisions. This requires thought, preparation, and discipline – which is why most “men” do not want to bother with making decisions, and would much rather surrender their freedoms to a superior authority to make those decisions for them.
Stripped of polite frippery, this is called “slavery”. You are here because you do not seek to be enslaved. To do so, you must embrace freedom. And, as I have said so many times by now – it is not my aphorism, mind you:
“Freedom is not the right to do as you please. Freedom is the substitution of discipline imposed by oneself, for discipline imposed by others.”
When You Cannot See the Fork in the Road
Being free requires you to make hard decisions. But there are times when, no matter how strong or tough you are, you have absolutely no idea what to do. There will be times in your life when you come to a storm-nexus, where all you see is violence and turbulence, with no safe harbour, and no good options.
At this point, you will have no idea what to do, because everything looks dark and fearful. There is no clear path ahead, no way to assess things, no way to understand events at all. This inevitably creates a fog of confusion and fear in the mind of any man who observes it, because the human mind is not well conditioned to understand what is happening.
Humans thrive on certainty. Barring that, we can handle risky situations. But we are extremely bad at dealing with uncertain situations. The purpose of this guide is to show you how to deal with uncertainty so that you can equip yourself with a mental toolkit that will prevent “paralysis through analysis” and costly indecision.
The Difference Between Risk and Uncertainty
To do so, you must first understand that there is a big difference between RISK, and UNCERTAINTY. The two are NOT the same, not even close.
Being a mathematician by training (not a very good one, mind you), I tend to think of these things in mathematical terms. A mathematician defines risk as a set of events which have probabilities associated with them. Your task is to figure out the probabilities, and you will succeed or fail based on how well you estimate those probabilities.
By contrast, uncertainty is a situation where the events themselves are unknown. Such a situation is terrifying, because you literally don’t know what could happen, which means you have no way to prepare for anything. It is like walking into a thick bank of fog where you cannot see your own hand in front of your face.
Let us illustrate this with an example, one which fans of sportzball will probably find relevant.
I’m given to understand that there is something called “football”, which Americans play quite differently from the rest of the world. (Big surprise there.) In football, you have teams of men running up and down a big grassy field for a long time. The team that scores more points, wins. The probability of any given team winning, depends on a very large range of possible events. These include: the weather, the skill and experience level of the coach, the level of cohesion of the team, the capabilities of individual players, the past track record of the team, world events, and random chance.
All of these things can be estimated or quantified at some level. Based on these estimations, you can make a prediction as to which particular team will win.
When you place a monetary wager on one particular team winning a game, that is a risky situation. The events are known – either your team wins, or it loses. There are sub-events that chain together to make one outcome or the other more or less likely. You win or lose based on how well you have estimated those sub-events.
That is risk.
Now, suppose you have a team that shows up to some field somewhere and has no idea what the game being played is. It has literally no clue what the rules are, who the other players are, where the event is being held, what the weather will be like, and so on. In other words, the possible range of events is infinite, and estimating any kind of outcome within reason is impossible.
That is uncertainty.
Penetrating the Fog
In situations of uncertainty, your mind plays all sorts of tricks on you. When walking through that thick fog-bank, you imagine any number of horrifying things – falling off a cliff, stumbling into a swamp-bog and drowning, being struck fatally by an oncoming vehicle, even meeting some evil bloodthirsty daemon that wants to feast on your innards.
How, then, do you deal with this situation?
The first step is to understand that you are not dealing with a problem. You are dealing with a situation.
This is not some esoteric point uttered by a philosopher with less sense than God gave a honey badger. (Or uttered by, God help you, an MBA – those guys are really silly, on the whole, and rely more on jargon than thought. Trust me, I know all about that.) This is a very real issue.
You see, if you think that you have a problem, then this implies that you have a solution. For example, suppose you have a leaky faucet that constantly drips and wastes water, creating a noisy and irritating sound in the process. That is a problem. Its solution is clear – fix the faucet, stop the leak, silence the noise.
Unfortunately, many – I argue, most – things in life are not problems that can be so easily solved. Most things in life are situations, which cannot be solved, only IMPROVED.
This is the key to tackling uncertainty and penetrating through that dense fog-bank. Your situation is that you are lost in a fog with no way out. What are you going to do?
Fail Fast, Fail Often
The other major issue with problem-solution thinking is that you end up believing in one-and-done solutions. This is wrong. Uncertain situations CANNOT BE FIXED through one-shot solutions. Uncertainty, by the definition given above, means that you do not know what could happen. So you have to figure out what potential events could be, by trial-and-error.
This is the key to getting out of an uncertain situation. You have to be willing to try something – anything – that might get you out of your current mess.
I do not know what military training is like these days, but I am given to understand that there was a time when they would tell you in Basic: doing something now is far better than waiting to to the perfect thing much later, because by that time, you’re dead.
While the results of doing something that MIGHT fail right now probably won’t be deadly for you, the results will certainly be far better than waiting for that perfect time to do the right thing. Time is the one and only commodity that we can never get back. Once it is gone, it is GONE for good. There is no use crying about it later. And when you are dealing with an uncertain situation, doing something – ANYTHING! – right now to improve your situation, is far better than devising the perfect elaborate stratagem to get yourself out of trouble weeks or months later.
Yes, you will probably fail. Yes, failure is costly, difficult, and painful. It is also the only way that you will learn. So you have to be willing to fail fast, and fail often, until you reach some kind of improvement in your current situation.
It is not enough to try lots of things and see what fails – you have to LEARN from failures. This sounds astoundingly obvious, but you would be surprised to learn how many people (myself included, in fact) fail to learn from past mistakes and keep doing the same stupid shit over, and over, and bloody OVER, again, expecting different results somehow from each foolish and stupid attempt.
Systematic Thinking to Conquer Uncertainty
The basic concept of moving away from problem-solution thinking, and toward situation-improvement thinking, comes from something called soft systems analysis, pioneered by Dr. Peter Checkland and carried on by his students. The diagram you see above is one way of representing Dr. Checkland’s work, which was itself built on earlier works such as that of John Dewey.
It can be summarised as follows:
When you run into a situation of uncertainty, DO SOMETHING. Anything. The one cardinal sin here is to sit around, paralysed, waiting for someone to tell you what to do. That is not going to happen. You will be sitting and waiting for the Rapture while your world collapses around you.
Do whatever you can with what you have, and see where it goes. You will probably fail, and that is going to hurt – take it from someone who has failed many, many times over the past few years. But you will learn from those failures, and you will often find that those failures had a hidden reason behind them, which you will not see or understand at the time.
Over the next several hours, days, weeks, and months, possible events will shake themselves out, and the path ahead will become much more clear and apparent. The infinite range of possibilities will narrow out to just a handful, and you will then be able to estimate actual risk for those events, because you will have learned from your failures and integrated those lessons and changed yourself in the process.
The key here is to understand that learning is not a one-and-done thing. It is a constant process, a feedback loop that builds upon and reinforces itself. Knowledge must be acquired through hard experience, and not merely for its own sake. It is one thing to read about someone else’s experiences in a book (or article). It is an entirely different matter to go through similar stresses for yourself.
Conclusion – Faith Above All
Ultimately, you need to have faith to power yourself through situations of real uncertainty. These are the worst of times – the gut-churning moments when you have literally no clue what might happen, and you are scared out of your mind. In those times, it is a great comfort to know that something much bigger and more powerful than you, is watching over you and has a degree of knowledge and control over the situation that you cannot even begin to understand.
Atheists and agnostics do not understand this Power. Non-Christians (and non-Jews) have a radically different understanding of that Power, and in my view it is not a particularly good or sensible one. Christians who believe in the power of Yahweh, though, understand that our God sees and understands all there is to know about the human heart – its hidden desires, its purity and its darkness, its strengths and weaknesses, and its most likely choices.
When you are tested by events, and plunged into the terrifying fog of uncertainty, you need to understand, very clearly, that you are going through this for a REASON. This is not mere randomness – there is a guided intelligence behind it. Nor is it merely human malice – if that were the case, then the general way out of the issue would be to remove the human presence causing it, one way or another. The kinds of times that I am describing are much, much worse than that.
Above all else, then, in those times when the guiding lights are all extinguished, have faith that there is a greater Plan working behind the scenes. That Plan does not necessarily require your active cooperation and understanding – but it becomes a whole lot easier to execute if you “get with the program”, as it were. You can do so by stumbling around and figuring out things on your own – or, you can trust that there is a One out there which wants you to succeed in doing what He wants you to do, and let Him lead you where He needs you to go.
I warn you that you almost certainly will not like the journey. But you WILL come out the other side as a substantially better man – humbler, wiser, stronger, tougher, and with a renewed appreciation for what really matters.