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  • Cheat uncertainty by sweetening the potential outcomes
  • Dealing with uncertainty one step at a time

Cheat uncertainty by sweetening the potential outcomes

Even with all the research you can do, you can’t remove all the uncertainty from a decision. This is life.

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I cheat by making potential outcomes a little bit better with arbitrary conditions, in addition to any intrinsic value I can remind myself about. For example, I might prefer one set of results, but I’ll promise myself sushi if the outcomes don’t go my way. Or ice cream, or playing a video game, or reading, or some time spent writing. Since I don’t have ice cream and other treats that often (that’s why they’re treats), the trick works.

I also try to focus on the intrinsic value of various outcomes. My favourite outcome sweetener used to be “If nothing else, this will make a great story someday,” which is an excellent psychological benefit associated with keeping a blog. (Try it!) Other good ones for me are “Well, if it doesn’t work out, it’s good practice in equanimity,” and “I’m sure I’ll learn something.” I remind myself of that before the uncertainty is resolved so that I don’t feel like I’m sour-graping. Find whatever works for you. That said, sometimes it’s fun to have an actual treat.

This is different from, say, drowning your sorrows in ice cream after the fact. Eating ice cream because you’re sad is one thing; deciding to give yourself advance permission to eat a little ice cream if outcome B happens is another. Or at least it is for me – there’s something about the mental trick of reconciling yourself with probabilities.

While a small concession doesn’t completely make up for not getting a preferred outcome, it takes the edge off. It reminds you that nothing is a complete loss. Being grateful for the small things (even the ones that you’ve intentionally added to the outcome) can help kickstart gratitude for the rest of it. I’m good at enjoying small things, even if they happen because I decided to make them happen.

I also try to not place too much value on specific outcomes. It’s not that A is better and B is worse. They’re just different. Who knows, B might even be better for me in the long run. It’s liberating to face the uncertainty and say, “Well, I’m going to be happy either way this goes, so let’s find out what kind of happiness it will be.”

So this is how I deal with decisions that could go one way or the other: I tack on little treats for myself so that I always have something to look forward to. Even if I rarely end up going down those paths, this practice is great for being optimistic and resilient. It makes life predictably awesome, even when life itself is unpredictable. After all, that’s what consolation prizes are for.

Do you use a similar trick? How do you hack your thoughts and emotions when it comes to uncertainty?

Dealing with uncertainty one step at a time

Sometimes it’s hard to plan ahead because there are just too many factors to consider, too many things I don’t know, too many divergent paths. I can come up with different scenarios, but I can’t figure out a lot of things that would make sense in all the likely scenarios. Some of the scenarios are exciting, but some of them are also scary. They’re hard to hold in my mind. They fight my imagination. I can’t plan straight for these. I can’t come up with step 1, step 2, step 3. At best, I can come up with if-then-elses, but I still have to wait and see how things turn out.

Sometimes it’s easier to take life one day at a time, because if I think about too large a chunk, I start getting lost. Sometimes it’s better to not focus on everything that’s needed, just what’s needed right now.

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It rattles me a little bit because I’m more used to seeing clearer paths. Or do I only think that I’m used to that?

Let me try to remember when I felt that sense of clarity and certainty. I was certain about taking computer science; I loved programming even as a kid. I was certain about teaching after graduation; I loved helping people learn. I was certain about taking a technical internship in Japan; it was an interesting thing to do. I was certain about taking my master’s degree; it was a logical next step, necessary for teaching, and the research was interesting.

I was not certain about being in Canada, and I was often homesick during my studies. But I was certain about W-, and now this place also feels like home. I was certain about IBM and about the people and ideas I wanted to work with. I was certain about saving up an opportunity fund so that I could explore other things someday. I was certain about starting this 5-year experiment with semi-retirement.

So I’m familiar with what it’s like to plan for a chunk of certainty – half a year, four years, decades. It feels good when a plan comes together, when I can see how each step leads to a future I’ve already lived in my head.

I am certain, now, that I’m going in roughly the right direction. I don’t know exactly how it will work out, but I know that it will be interesting.

Ah! There it is, I think, the thing I’m trying to grasp. The future Sacha of this five-year experiment is fuzzy in my head. That evaluation point is only two years away now, and I should be able to imagine her more clearly. But aside from a few abstract characteristics (future Sacha is a better developer and writer, future Sacha continues to be happy, future Sacha gets to work on what she wants), I don’t have a good sense of her yet – not with the same solidity of past futures. I’m not sure what to put on that Conveyor Belt of Time (as Mr. Money Mustache puts it) aside from generically-useful gifts to my future self: decent finances, relationships, skills.

Circling back to the metaphor that emerged while I was drawing and writing my way through this question, I suppose this is like the difference between hiking along a trail with a view – or even unmarked ground, but with landmarks for orienting yourself – versus exploring the woods. Not that I know much of the latter; I’ve never been lost in the woods before, never strayed from the safety of a trail or the sight of a road. (Well, except maybe that one time we were hiking along the Bruce Trail and got turned around a little bit, and we ended up scrambling up a slope to find the trail we really wanted to be on.)

I can learn to enjoy exploring, knowing that in the worst-case scenario, I’ve got the figurative equivalent of supplies, a GPS, emergency contacts, backup batteries and so on. I can learn to enjoy observing the world, turning questions and ideas over, noticing what’s interesting about them, perhaps cracking things open in order to learn more. I can learn to take notes, make maps, tidy up trails, and leave other gifts for people who happen to wander by that way.

Ah. That might be it. Let’s give that a try.