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5 Tips for Thinking Under Uncertainty

Most people flee uncertainty. Yet being able to think well under uncertainty can be very rewarding, and I've come to realize it's a skill that can be learned. Here are some tips for thinking under uncertainty.

1. Think in terms of ranges of scenarios

In many situations, you only have limited information. Our brains are quick to make conclusions and don't consider all the scenarios.

Don't let this happen.

You have to realize that given the information you have, there is a range of scenarios that could account for it.

Talking to someone who seems cold and aloof? Maybe the person is unfriendly, or maybe the person is just shy.

Is your boss micromanaging you lately? Maybe he doesn't trust you, maybe he's under increased pressure from his boss, or maybe it's just a random event.

You need to avoid tunnel vision. It's easy to become focused on one scenario - because you're afraid of the scenario or really hopeful for it - and ignore information that points to other possibilities.

For each decision you can make, consider the consequences in each scenario. Which decision maximizes your "expected benefit"1 across all scenarios?

2. Acquire more information

One of the best ways to deal with uncertainty is to reduce it. What options do you have available to acquire more information?

If you're deciding whether or not to take a job offer, learn as much as you can about the company. What's the turnover rate? Talk to current employees and question them on what it's like to work there.

3. In general, taking action is better than being passive

It's easy to be overwhelmed by uncertainty and be afraid to take action. Nothing comes to you in life, you have to be willing to take action without certainty.

I had a friend in high school who asked out 8 girls in a two week period and got rejected by each one. Did this stop him and cause him to question himself? No, the 9th girl said yes, they were a great match, and now they're married.

I love this anecdote about taking action in an uncertain situation.

4. Control your emotions

Uncertainty makes people anxious. And that anxiousness can lead to frustration and rash decisions.

Emotions come into play when you don't know what action to take. Having a disciplined approach to thinking through the information you have and analyzing the possibilities avoids this feeling of haplessness.

5. Learn to play poker

Poker is a game of making decisions under uncertainty. Good poker playing is an unnatural skill; it must be learned. It's interesting how the skills you learn in poker translate into the real world.

To be a good poker player you have to consider the ranges of possibilities for the cards in your opponents' hands that fit the betting so far. You have to control your emotions or you'll make bad decisions and go broke. And being aggressive is crucial2.

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1 Expectation is a statistical concept. Your expected value is the sum of each scenario's value multiplied by its probability.

2 Don't take the analogy too far though. Life is not a zero sum game like poker, and there's no concept of cooperation in poker.

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