Published in the San Diego Union-Tribune, November 1, 2021
by Neil Senturia
A rule in my first book says that the entrepreneur needs to not only tolerate ambiguity but also, he/she needs to embrace it.
Well, easy for you to say, but it turns out that the human brain is not wired to easily agree to my rule. Heidi Grant and Tal Goldhamer, researchers at EY America (formerly Ernst & Young), have written an article suggesting that uncertainty makes us crazier than we already are.
For example, for $23 and the square, can you tell me what the current mask rules are for businesses and schools, for restaurants and hotels, stadiums and airports, and for a bonus point, can you explain why so many people refuse to get vaccinated?
Now, uncertainty is a nuanced concept, but you deal with it every day. And then as the business develops and matures, you develop patterns and expectations. The trucks get loaded at 11 a.m., and then they do their deliveries every day. Whatever sport you play, you have muscle memory. Complex behaviors over time operate on autopilot.
Grant and Goldhamer give the classic example of driving home every day and when you get to the house, you do not remember all the turns you made. You were thinking about telling your boss to take his job and stuff it or how to explain to your spouse that strange phone call from the hotel. They explain that our “brain evolved to be uncertainty-averse.” When things are in flux, our brains experience a potential threat. The unknown lurks, you exercise less control. Fight, freeze or flee.
The trick for the entrepreneur is to balance all the unknowns while constantly assessing the risk, the reward and the likelihood of each choice, given that clarity only arrives after the fact.
Grant and Goldhamer write, “Threat creates significant impairments in your working memory.” It becomes more difficult to hold multiple ideas at the same time with the same degree of focus. Your actual well-being is impacted. So, overwhelmed, you come home and kick the cat because the term sheet is delayed. Or you hired the person and then they just didn’t show up.
Your long-term memory gets clogged up by the real-time lack of certainty. And then, like me, confusion rears its ugly head, and you forget to get off at Grand and Garnet, even though you have done it for 35 years. Fortunately, our two researchers propose some strategies.
“Believe that everything is going to work out fine.” Clearly, these guys are not Jewish. My version of this is to assume disaster is lurking just around the corner. I play defense, I worry only about the downside, I never count chickens, and when I do, I assume 20 percent will die before I can get their feathers off and into the cacciatore. They encourage realistic optimism. I assume my tuna fish is laced with cyanide.
Goldhamer and Grant also tell us to never give up hope. They say we need to set “positive expectations.” They call this creating a “strong sense of self-efficacy.” That translates to believing that you can “make the shot, close that deal.” This duality is orthogonal at best. You need to assume success and at the same time plan for pain, suffering and rejection — because that is what uncertainty creates in the human brain.
Our researchers then offer another idea — “Lift to bigger-picture thinking.” For example, you go to vote and you are either “participating in democracy or just checking a box.” When we see higher purpose, when we are aiming higher, we become more inspired and motivated with improved self-esteem. And of course, that turns the flywheel faster, and our odds for success increase. In other words, we all need “personal purpose.” Otherwise, why the hell are you getting up in the morning?
And finally, the third strategy — “embrace candor.” Honest communication heals a lot of wounds. Maybe the new normal is just trying to tell the truth. (Try to sell that in Washington, D.C.) Prevaricating increases uncertainty and then the whole miserable cycle starts all over again. As CEO, you should consider making truth the baseline norm for your teams. Their brains will thank you. There is already enough uncertainty in the world without each of us adding to it.
Please email ideas to Neil at [email protected].
Rule No. 686
“You can’t cheat an honest man.” — W.C. Fields