How to Navigate Uncertainty

Mauro F. Guillen, author of 2030: How Today's Biggest Trends Will Collide and Reshape the Future of Everything, discusses seven rules for getting through unknown times. 

Mauro F. Guillen
3-minute read

Overwhelmed by the pandemic? Worried that the economy is anemic? Concerned that the world all around you is changing beyond recognition? When there are so many things out of whack, our human instinct is to either freeze and do nothing or change everything in our lives and start afresh.

We must resist the temptation of either extreme. Never has a middle path been more appropriate. But how does one balance the need for action with the peril of making the wrong decision? Here are seven rules that will help you cruise through the uncertainties of the moment.

Lose sight of the shore

“You cannot swim for new horizons,” William Faulkner once wrote, “until you have courage to lose sight of the shore.” The first step in navigating uncertainty involves moving out of our comfort zone to begin exploring the possibilities that lie around the corner. Ignoring the unknown is a recipe for losing out on new opportunities for personal and professional growth.

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Diversify with purpose

In the midst of uncertainty, fear leads people to diversify, to dilute their exposure to the perceived threat. It’s the old adage of not putting all the eggs in one basket. But consider the power of this principle when it comes to exposing your mind to a multitude of new ideas. It’s simply self-defeating to believe that sticking to long-held beliefs and ways of doing can work. On the contrary, you need to entertain new paths of action.

To be successful, move incrementally

Another counter-productive belief when coping with large-scale change is that success comes from making big moves, especially when so many things are changing. When beset by fear, we tend to overreact. Take one step at a time, constantly reevaluating the situation. Look for lateral ways in which you can adapt to new circumstances.

Ignoring the unknown is a recipe for losing out on new opportunities for personal and professional growth.

Anticipate dead ends

Incremental course-corrections and lateral moves cannot occur unless you preserve the option of reversing direction so as to avoid into a dead end. In fact, most people become fearful of the future precisely when they find themselves up against the wall. By keeping your options open, you ensure that you can adapt as the rules of the game shift. Never make an irreversible decision by ensuring that you have a way out.

Approach uncertainty with optimism

“Every day is a new opportunity,” legendary baseball pitcher Bob Feller once said. “You can build on yesterday’s success or put its failures behind and start over again.” Fear of the uncertain is such a formidable stressor that even seasoned athletes reel from “competition anxiety.” Anxiety about failing induces us to try to avoid losses rather than to lock in wins to play it safe. You need to focus on the opportunity rather than the downside.

You need to focus on the opportunity rather than the downside.

Scarcity isn’t scary

Crises frequently evoke images of deprivation, lack of resources, empty shelves… The scarcity should be a source of inspiration to change for the better. Perhaps the established way of doing things was wasteful and needs to be abandoned. It’s entirely possible that you need to switch gears just to redefine scarcity on your own terms, looking for alternatives.

Take the current

The rules of the game keep changing. While the only possible response to change is change itself, one cannot successfully respond to any transformation—large or small—by merely trying to minimize the losses or by overcoming scarcities as they manifest themselves. The seventh and last principle is to become “surfers” and organize ourselves to catch the waves of demographic, economic, cultural, and technological change as they come our way. “If you fight [external trends],” Jeff Bezos once wrote in a letter to Amazon’s shareholders, “you’re probably fighting the future. Embrace them and you have a tailwind.” In Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, Brutus outlined a similar principle when he stated, “and we must take the current when it serves, or lose our ventures.”

Guillén is a professor at the Wharton School and the author of the Wall Street Journal bestselling book, 2030: How Today’s Biggest Trends Will Collide and Reshape the Future of Everything.