The benefits of not knowing what’s next.
by Erik Brown
“Once you’ve accepted you don’t know what happens next, that you can’t predict and plan everything in your life. Then, you’re free to act. Because what’s holding you back?” — Malcolm Gladwell, Revisionist History Podcast
Coca-Cola recently created a machine that allows you to have 127 different varieties of their soft drinks. You can make versions and flavors that have never existed in a bottle or can before. However, a machine and idea like this is far from unique nowadays. Our amazing mastery of technology has given us unlimited control over our lives in many ways.
We are inundated with calendar apps, bullet journals, and productivity tools to give us countless ways to minimize uncertainties. But despite the amazing soda machines and all the apps tech provides us, often this control is an illusion. We’re still regular victims of uncertainty and doubt. Anxiety is generally the result when fate reminds us of how little control we have over certain things even with technology.
But is this lack of control something to lose sleep over? What if it could be the most freeing thing in your life? Although it sounds counter-intuitive, a famous economist, a world-recognized poker player, and a best-selling author all believe it’s true.
In their view, doubt can lead to better ways to think, improvised creativity never thought possible, and general improvement in most people’s lives. They firmly believe your doubts should free you, not create anxiety. Also, the uncertainty you find in not knowing an answer often drives you to a solution in itself.
Don’t Let Anxiety Stall Your Creativity
In an article in the New Yorker, Malcolm Gladwell describes the incredible life of the economist Albert Otto Hirschman. Calling him just an economist is a bit limiting though. Hirschman fought in the Spanish Civil War, was a university teacher, spent time as a spy in France helping Jews escape Europe in WWII, plus he traveled the globe consulting for the World Bank.
While most economists live in a world of numbers and charts, Hirschman’s writing was filled with philosophy and psychology. In particular, he had a strange view of doubt compared to the modern world. He’d often compress these ideas into the saying, “Hamlet was wrong”.
By this, he meant the famous character was paralyzed by doubt, which lead to his ultimate demise. His famous speech “To be or not to be,” is often how we handle the unknown and the anxiety it causes. We stall and stop, not knowing what to do. Hirschman lived his life the exact opposite way. He charged into the unknown seeing the “monsters” he may find there as beneficial.
The economist was often hired to plan giant infrastructure projects, but he often found no matter how intricate a plan was it ran into unknown consequences. For instance, he described a lumber mill created in Pakistan to harvest bamboo. Right after the multi-million-dollar mill was built, the bamboo forest bloomed and all the trees died. This should have been the end of the story — failure — but it wasn’t.
The mill operators found different supplies of wood, grew their own forest, and found other things to do with the mill. Hirschman called this the Hiding Hand Principle, based on Adam Smith’s Invisible Hand idea.
The Hiding Hand simply means people take on harder challenges than they plan because they don’t see the unknown problems. These hidden problems and anxiety force an individual to be more creative than they thought possible. Gladwell sums up Hirschman’s ideas on doubt and anxiety in a neat package.
“Obstacles led to frustration, and frustration to anxiety. No one wanted to be anxious. But wasn’t anxiety the most powerful motivator — the emotion capable of driving even the most reluctant party toward some kind of solution?”
Poker’s Lessons On Doubt And Anxiety
In a recent interview on the Knowledge Project Podcast, author and psychologist Maria Konnikova talked about her latest book, “The Biggest Bluff”. Initially, she focused her ideas on how random chance can affect life. She began to study Game Theory and found its creator, John von Neuman, was a big-time poker player.
Konnikova says von Neuman described poker as “the best game of incomplete information”. You’re constantly dealing with doubt and must make decisions based on limited knowledge — much like life. She decided to start studying and playing poker, even talking a world champion player Erik Seidel into coaching her.
She went from not even knowing how many cards were in a deck to becoming a professional poker player. While Konnikova was learning about poker, she also learned invaluable lessons about life and dealing with doubt. For instance, Seidel was often more concerned about her thinking processes during a hand and less concerned if she won or lost.
Konnikova learned you can only do your best to put together a strategy with the limited information you have and chance does the rest. You can influence it by being observant, however, even the most skilled player can suffer bad luck. She instantly saw the parallels between life and the game.
“There are just factors completely outside our control and chance is…variance. It doesn’t care if you’re a good person, it doesn’t care how hard you’ve worked. It doesn’t care about anything. I mean, it’s just random stuff that happens.”
There is good news though. Over the course of many hands skill does take over and consistent champions like Erik Seidel climb to the top. She began to see life as a series of poker hands. Chance may affect a certain number, but over countless hands skill, thinking, and strategy rule the day.
Being Comfortable With The Uncontrollable
As the world and technology progress, we’ll continue to get better tools to manage the unknown and control everything around us. We’ll have our 127 flavors of soda and digital assistants to help us along with our crazy days. However, we should be resigned to the fact we’ll never control everything. Doubt and the unknown will never go away.
We shouldn’t see these things as monsters to be afraid of. It’s in our best interest to be more like Hirschman than Hamlet. The Hiding Hand allows us the hubris to face challenges we never would have taken on otherwise. The unknown also forces us to be creative and think in ways we never thought possible. As Epictetus reminds us, there would have been no legend of Hercules without lions, hydras, or monsters.
Maria Konnikova also reminds us life is a series of games. Chance may play a major part in several of them, but over the course of a lifetime skill takes over. We must plan as best as we can for what life throws at us, but that’s all we can do. There’s no point beating ourselves up for bad luck.
In the end, our doubts should free us, not create anxiety. As Malcolm Gladwell reminds us if we don’t know what happens next and everything can’t be planned, this frees us to act.
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