I struggle with uncertainty. There has always been something profoundly comforting about having a plan, whether it’s to decide on the best time to catch the Caltrain on a weekend or to map my ambitions for years ahead.
As I’ve grown, friends and mentors have cautioned me about being excessively rigid. Their argument is logical enough: life, by design, is chaotic, so if one is unable to accept to the unpredicted events that befall them, how can they move forward?Getty Images
American society embraces the idea of venturing steadfast in the face of uncertainty. Harken back to the California Gold Rush, where some 300,000 chased fleeting riches, traversing sea and land in hopes of recovering gold. Only a select few attained great wealth; many returned home with very little. Or more recently, the dot-com bubble, where investors decidedly placed faith in the meteoric rise of Internet companies. Market confidence was founded on the mulish mentality that dot-coms would turn future profits. Investors went so far as to ignore traditional metrics and KPIs — remarkable, given the uncertainty that the “network effects” that these companies heralded to prove their business models were at all sustainable.
The pragmatist’s approach is to strike a balance: when possible, plan ahead, but leave room for — and expect — the unexpected. I think this attitude helps most achieve general happiness — practitioners can work towards achieving their goals while withstanding the randomness of life.
But what if one wants to control their future?
You can expect the future to take a definite form or you can treat it as hazily uncertain. If you treat the future as something definite, it makes sense to understand it in advance and to work to shape it. But if you expect an indefinite future ruled by randomness, you’ll give up on trying to master it.
Thiel’s advice is counter-intuitive; we’ve been conditioned to assume an indefinite attitude to everything, since childhood. And truthfully, I don’t think this temperament works for most. But to those who have envisioned a very clear future — be that the successful colonization of Mars or a promotion in the workforce — I encourage you to reject uncertainty.
Why? Consider life as a state space, where the initial state is wherever one is now, and the goal state is a future they have envisioned for themselves. There is a finite, but immense universe of possible procedures to reach that goal. Regardless of what search algorithm one might apply to find a state that satisfies the goal formula, it’s crucial to reduce the branching factor — humans have only so much time to explore the various branches in the space. So rather than approaching the future with a diverse and uncertain method and a resulting large branching factor, identify the one available path that appears best to achieve the goal and follow it.
One might dismiss this approach as robotic. After all, state space planning is an axiom of Artificial Intelligence. One hundred years from now, intelligent machines will likely take this principle to every task. But these AIs will accomplish tasks orders of magnitude more efficiently as a result. Ironically, we have instilled these algorithms within them — so what is stopping us from treating life the same way, today?