Entrepreneurs need to embrace uncertainty

Testing yourself against 'unknown unknowns' trains your intuition, says Faisal Butt.

by Faisal Butt
Last Updated: 30 Mar 2017

Winston Churchill once wisely said 'it's a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma.' He was addressing the nation in a BBC broadcast, speculating on how Russia may or may not respond in the wake of one of the most uncertain times in recent history - World War II. Leaders are often judged by how they manage uncertainty: when the stakes are high, yet our control of the possible outcomes is limited. At times like this, working out probabilities and other forms of statistical analysis are of little use. Great leaders that have triumphed over the beast of uncertainty are often those that have relied on calculated intuition and instinct, honed over many years with practice and repetition.       

Navigating Uncertainty

Unfortunately, there isn’t any short cut to possessing intuition. For thousands of years, the ancient Polynesians were put to the test daily as they navigated the uncertainty of the oceans – braving sea storms, cyclones, unpredictable tides, and carnivorous sea creatures. With no instruments at their disposal, they developed a great sense of their surroundings and a highly tuned intuition to read the erratic oceanic behaviours through the skies and the swells.

While some may argue that such refined intuition can only emerge over the passage of time, I believe that our ability to tackle uncertainty is developed iteratively when we are put to the test. When we are backed into a corner, we emerge with bravery and ingenuity. When we have no option but to solve a problem, history has proven that the problem will be solved. 

Entrepreneurs and Uncertainty

 The entrepreneur knows uncertainty better than most.  Every day is pitted with unknowns and unanswered questions.

Am I pursuing the right strategy?  Have I hired the right people?  What do I need to do to achieve my business plan?  How will I outcompete my rivals?  Am I going to close the deal with the investor?

 With so many unknowns to battle, being solely responsible for the future of a business requires gumption and resourcefulness. Being at the helm of a fledgling business musters a survival instinct within us, similar to what the ancient Polynesians harnessed to navigate the capricious oceans. Putting ourselves regularly in uncertain situations stimulates and strengthens our limbic cortex or ‘lizard brain’, which is in charge of fight, flight, feeding, fear, and fornication. This self-inflicted torture hardens entrepreneurs so we not only know how to manage uncertainty but actually thrive in it.   

Unknown Unknowns

In early 2002, Donald Rumsfeld, known more as a controversial political figure than as a business visionary, confounded us all when spelling out the many layers of uncertainty:

'We know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns – the ones we don't know we don't know. And if one looks throughout the history of our country and other free countries, it is the latter category that tend to be the difficult ones

Uncertainty has been a fact of life throughout history.  But there are times when it heightens, to varying degrees, and we go into 'unknown unknown’ territory:  The Ice Age.  The Plague.  The World Wars.

We again live in uncertain times today, but those who have made uncertainty their friend will capitalise on the situation and make today’s ‘unknowns’ their catapult to success. 

My own career has been marked with twists and turns, going from software developer to start-up business owner, to property investor, to PE professional, to Proptech investor. It’s hardly followed a logical and predictable path. I’ve experienced first-hand the bipolar existence of entrepreneurial life and faced my fair share of ‘unknown unknowns’. Living and breathing uncertainty is a way of life and part of who I have become. Is it fun? Not always. Does my wife enjoy it?  Not at all. Is it starting to pay off?  I sure hope so. Would I have it any other way?  No way. Uncertainty has hardened me and made me a survivor. 

Final Thoughts

With Brexit and the economic consequences of the vote still yet unknown, we live in times when change is all around us. Reading the news headlines and not knowing what will come next can be stifling and stressful. But uncertainty is now the new normal. To adapt fast, we must borrow from the Polynesians’ playbook, wander head-on into unchartered waters, and learn to harness uncertainty by sheer practice. We have to believe that from the darkness of the unknown will emerge promise and prowess. 

There is no better place where this surprising gift of uncertainty is illustrated than in Christopher Logue’s poem ‘Come to the Edge:’

Come to the edge.

We might fall.

Come to the edge.

It’s too high!

COME TO THE EDGE!

And they came

and he pushed

and they flew…

Image credit: Jaymantri/Pixabay

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