Child is better at navigating uncertainty than you

What has been the most dominant change in my way of thinking in the past year, must be how I perceive uncertainty. There are few big ideas which shaped up my thinking for good.

Missile metaphor

The first idea which made me even acknowledge the importance of handling uncertainty in our lives is from Piotr Wozniak, which is Missile metaphor. It is about adaptability and goes like this:

Imagine a perfectly adaptable low flying missile that can learn to navigate terrain obstacles in search of a target. Like the human brain adapts to the environment, the missile adapts to the navigation in a difficult terrain. With each hour of flight, the missile will become more and more efficient in tackling unpredictable situations. However, if we try to control the missile manually, as it happens to brains at school, the adaptation may lead to poor control

This metaphor had very big impact on me and I can’t pinpoint exactly why. Maybe the timing was just great as I had read a bit about economics of uncertainty and struck with a quote from a book called The Charisma Myth:

The ability to be comfortable with uncertainty and ambiguity turns out to be one of the strongest predictors of success in business.

Anyways, the ball about uncertainty started rolling and I became very intrigued about the whole thing. It made sense on so many levels in my life. Back then I also found Learning to navigate uncertainty and complexity which further reinforced the idea.

Some time passed and I started digging through a concept called “exploration” in my learning collection, which consists of tons of links and topics I am not familiar with. All of these have high priority and I explore the concept from time to time. Anyways, then I came across this very powerful idea…

Cynefin Framework

Cynefin Framework, sometimes called “sense-making device” is a framework used to aid decision-making. It has five domains: obvious, complicated, complex, chaotic, and disorder. It helps managers to identify how they perceive situations and make sense of their own and other people’s behaviour.

Now the framework itself didn’t mean much to me (though it seemed interesting!). What had very powerful impact on me was this neat illustration of Cynefin framework by Edwin Stoop:

I cropped the image, but you can view the original here.

What was very powerful in this image was “the art of learning how to play”. This had HUGE implications for me! Child who never kicked a football approaches it, kicks it, gets feedback and adjusts! He has no idea what to do and no idea what will happen when he does something! Yet he bravely approaches the unknown, sees what happens, gets feedback and goes from there. No step-by-step instructions, no manuals, no teachers, just uncertainty and a kid!

There is just something very beautiful about this, after being schooled for so many years and everything I knew revolved around direct instructions from teachers and parents. This is so impactful because it fought (and won) my past life strategy how I should plan everything and how I should always have step-by-step guidelines and profound reasoning why I should do something and how I should go about doing it, when in reality in some domains there is so much uncertainty, it is very poor strategy to work with your prior knowledge. Way better approach is to lean towards darkness, see what it is like there and slowly start revealing your surroundings and adapt to it.

The path will be created with every step. The truth is out there… somewhere!

Huge implications… I definitely am more comfortable with uncertainty these days and approach it with enthusiasm rather than getting anxious of not knowing what to do next!

Civilization metaphor

The last idea is some synthesis I produced from what I had learn. All this reminded me of a game I used to play called “Civilization”.

In Civilization you start with a dark map. You know nothing about your surroundings. Sounds familiar? It can be generalized to so many domains! In Civilization your goal is to build some huge empire and become all powerful. You do this by initially exploring your surroundings, finding resources, building cities and armies. Any location you haven’t explored is dark. This has great implications for life.

Can you see how trying to work with reasoning and your prior knowledge is poor strategy when starting in initially dark place? “Where should I explore, what should I do, how do I plan this”. These all are poor strategies! There is no good strategy (the strategy will emerge after the initial steps). You have absolutely no idea of your surroundings, so your best bet is to bravely throw dart somewhere, start exploring and gather intelligence of your surroundings. Lean towards darkness, get feedback and adjust. If you don’t find anything in North, go South!

With time, the map starts to brighten up. It is so much easier to work when you know your surroundings, tools and resources. One road connects to another, things start to make sense. We wouldn’t have this civilization if we didn’t bravely work with the uncertain.

Knowing that “this thing exists” is the starting point of changing your life for the better. Same quality thought is being aware of what you “can do”. Awareness is the key to everything.

Imagine it, if I didn’t know that “SuperMemo exists”, I wouldn’t love learning today. If I didn’t know that “I can get into university”, I wouldn’t be in university today. This sounds silly, but I actually wasn’t aware that I could apply to university with papers from vocational school I went to. I thought you could do that only with papers from high school. The day I found out I actually have the chance to apply, the seed was planted, and the path was adjusted towards great learning (finding SuperMemo).

This all goes align with navigating uncertainty, going towards darkness, finding what is out there, revealing the unknown, gathering the tools and knowledge and discovering your capabilities. This is the essence of life and it is such a beautiful idea!

Anecdote about “revealing the map”

I was talking with my friend about starting a start-up. We were coming up with different ideas and one of these was a software idea. My friend was streaming for me in Discord and sketching out ideas on paint. We settled with this software that works like slot machine for stocks.

What puzzled me was that my friend who NEVER have programmed anything, started thinking: “how would this technically work”. He was thinking how difficult it would be to write this program, when he does not know what simple “hello world” program requires. He started thinking and fiddling in paint about these technical parts and assessing how difficult/easy it would be (again, no idea about programming at all). And somehow he seemed to start thinking that maybe it would be too difficult, all while sitting on his computer chair, working in paint with nothing but his prior knowledge.

If he wanted to do it, there is no good strategy (the strategy will emerge after the initial steps) and his prior knowledge will be of little help. What he needs to do is start investigating, gather data, see how it looks out there, reveal the map and start working on it.

You could argue “he could analytically start thinking steps, planning or thinking the research through”, however premise is that he knows nothing about it, so these all are inferior options to just acting and “revealing the surroundings”. He should start gathering information (googling about similar projects, basics of programming or whatever). The strategies don’t matter all that much and his prior knowledge will be of little use (given he doesn’t know reliable sites related to the domain and it is a whole new thing).

It will always be superior to start “revealing your surroundings” in these situations. Maybe “child learning to play” is a tad extreme, but it’s inspirational to me anyways and helps me focus on “revealing” what is out there, instead of talking myself to corner with prior knowledge and strategies, when I know of so little about the new domain.

18.12.2020

Project I’m working on: https://aasianpuu.com/