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The What and Why of Positive Uncertainty

Are You Ready for Positive Uncertainty?

So much has already been written about creativity and decision making that you probably feel you know that territory. But are you ready to embrace such a concept as positive uncertainty? Not much has been written about it so it is unfamiliar and may make you a little uncomfortable (unless you have read the 1991 edition of this book). Yet you probably already possess some of the skills promoted by positive uncertainty.

Answer yes or no to the following questions to see if you are ready for positive uncertainty. This is not a test. You can continue reading no matter how you answer the questions. It is intended as a preview of what is to come.

Have you ever...

1. Wanted something, gotten it, and found out you wanted something else? Yes No
2. Set a clear goal and discovered a better one along the way? Yes No
3. Had thoughts that were not completely rational? Yes No
4. Found it advantageous not to know something? Yes No
5. Had unrealistic fantasies about your future? Yes No
6. Experienced a self-fulfilling prophecy? Yes No
7. Decided not to decide? Yes No
8. Made up your mind and then changed it? Yes No

If you answered yes to any of these questions, you are ready for positive uncertainty. If you answered yes to every question, you are ready and able!

Most people do answer yes to most of these questions. Being nonrational, unrealistic, changeable, and uncertain seems to be common practice.

Positive uncertainty encourages you to have some thoughts that are not completely rational, to develop some unrealistic illusions, to become as changeable as your environment, and to be positive about not knowing.

Most schools in the past did not teach these skills, and teachers even discouraged students from using them. In fact, traditional decision-making advice did not include these capabilities. Until recently, most decision strategies preached primarily rational, realistic, systematic, and even scientific practices.

What Is Positive Uncertainty?

Positive uncertainty can be thought of as a philosophy of creative decision making. It is an approach to making any decision—career, relationships, finances, and retirement—about anything significant in your life.

Decision making is defined as using what you know and what you believe so you can choose what to do to get what you want. Of course, what you do does not always get you what you want. Outcomes are uncertain because the future is unpredictable. That inevitable uncertainty between what you do and what you get is what traditional decision strategies try to eliminate with rational processes.

Positive uncertainty, on the other hand, does not prescribe decision rules for choosing. It offers a “point-of-view” as a guide for making creative decisions when the future is uncertain—and the future is always uncertain. It suggests that you acknowledge this uncertainty and be positive about it.

Mark Twain once said, “There are only two things you need to be successful in life: ignorance and confidence.” Having ignorance and confidence sounds like being uncertain and positive. Together they are a paradox—a contradictory statement that nevertheless may be true. Positive uncertainty contradicts conventional decision-making wisdom, yet there is truth to be found in it.

Why Be Positive About Uncertainty?

Being positive about uncertainty increases possibilities and produces the opportunity for proactive creativity. If the future is certain, all you can do is prepare for it. When the future is uncertain, however, there are lots of possible futures. You can be part of creating the future rather than just preparing for it.

All possibilities exist in the future. Thus, the future is an essential part of decision making. There are three kinds of futures:

Possible futures—what could happen

Probable futures—what is likely to happen

Preferable futures—what you prefer to happen

It could be considered wise decision making to “know” as many of these futures as you can, but decision-makers usually focus on the probable and preferable futures. This focus blocks out the infinite possible futures. With all the limitations on decision making, however, it is a great advantage to increase possibilities.

That is what positive uncertainty is all about: increasing possibilities. When you are absolutely certain (in your mind) about what will happen next, then that is the only thing you can think of happening. But when you are uncertain (in your mind) about what will happen next, you are able to think about additional possibilities. As political columnist and educator Max Lerner advised, “Do not be a pessimist or an optimist; be a ‘possibilist.’”

No one can “know” all of these futures because of what has been labeled the limited rationality of humans. Decision-makers’ goals and preferences are seldom complete or consistent; people keep expanding or changing what they want. Decision-makers seldom consider all the alternatives and consequences. This is what is meant by limited rationality. Even in an information society and with the Internet, we almost never know all we need to know to make a completely rational choice. And even if we did know everything, we do not have the cognitive capability (brainpower) to process it all rationally and rapidly. Plus, we often do not have the willpower to overcome the influence of our subjective mind.

This may sound like bad news, but wait—there is good news.

The good news is that people are naturally creative decision-makers because of humans’ unlimited creativity. Positive uncertainty recognizes limited rationality and unlimited creativity and promotes creative decision making.

Uncertainty is real; it probably can never be avoided. Accepting this uncertainty and being positive about it opens up possibilities for creative decision making— which is what this book is about.

Getting Started with Creative Decision Making

Creative Decision Making presents four easy-to-remember paradoxical principles, a few of Murphy’s Laws, and profound quotes from well-known sages. It also provides you with strategies and exercises for creating your own rules for deciding. Also included are examples to illustrate a strategy or an exercise.

The four paradoxical principles of positive uncertainty are explained in separate sections in the order that seems “rational”—what you want, know, believe, and do. But of course they are not separate, and decision making is not always (if ever) performed in a linear, rational, orderly fashion. This means you could read the four principles in any order. They are:

  1. Be Focused and Flexible About What You Want

    This principle will help you create your goals and discover new ones.

    What you want now may not be what you want then.

  2. Be Aware and Wary of What You Know

    This principle will help you appraise knowing and appreciate not knowing.

    What you know may need to become unknown.

  3. Be Realistic and Optimistic About What You Believe

    This principle will help you realize that your beliefs influence your reality and your behavior.

    Believing is seeing is doing.

  4. Be Practical and Magical About What You Do

    This principle will help you use both your head and your heart in deciding.

    What you do to decide is up to you; just do it.

Think of this book as your personal decision-making reference guide that you can return to at any time. The Summary includes exercises that you can use over and over when faced with making career and life decisions.

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