‘There is ambiguity and paradox everywhere’: Fighting the fear of uncertainty

Learning to reframe uncertainty can turn it into something positive, according to a new book

In the course of his career as an academic, Nathan Furr, professor of strategy and innovation at Insead in Paris, has interviewed numerous business luminaries including Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk. What really struck him about them all was that they seemed to thrive on uncertainty while the rest of the world runs scared.

Prof Furr had been ruminating about a book on managing uncertainty for some time. The pandemic clinched the deal with his editors at Harvard Business Review Press because suddenly everyone knew exactly what it felt like to live with huge uncertainty. Prof Furr and his wife and co-author Susannah (an entrepreneur, designer, art historian and contrarian), got cracking and The Upside of Uncertainty will be published this month.

The book is fundamentally upbeat about finding possibility in uncertainty and learning to deal with it rather than trying to control it. Uncertainty is uncomfortable and it is stressful but, Prof Furr points out, if we stop and think about it, very little that has moved our personal or professional lives forward has happened without change and an element of risk.

The Furrs first co-operated on a writing project as 19-year-old students on the topic of zombies. There is a bit more to their collaboration this time as they are now the parents of four children with a lifetime of experience behind them. Recognising that readers might need some convincing that uncertainty is a force for good, the authors have dug into neuroscience, psychology, innovation and behavioural economics to develop a four-stage toolkit to help people overcome the fact that mankind is hard wired by evolution to fear uncertainty.


At the centre of the toolkit is an uncertainty first aid cross with reframe, prime, sustain, and do as the four points. The four overlap and inform each other and learning how to use them increases “uncertainty ability” the authors say.

Reframe is about shifting perspective to see upsides and possibilities in a situation that were not visible before and Prof Furr likens it to switching on a light in a dark room. Prime is about preparing for what is coming and part of the preparation involves knowing how much risk you are willing to take and expanding your risk tolerance.

The next point, do, covers areas including permission to pivot when necessary, improving cognitive flexibility and understanding values versus goals while sustain provides the tools with which to support oneself through the downsides of uncertainty.

Each of the four tools come with reflections and exercises but there is plenty more meat in the book which also draws on literature, philosophy and academic research to underpin its thesis. There are also insights from interviews with corporate big hitters including Denis O’Brien, Regeneron’s George Yancopoulos and venture capitalist Peter Thiel, who was one of the co-founders of PayPal and the first outside investor in Facebook.

Lest anyone doubt that living with uncertainty is on the rise, Prof Furr points to the World Uncertainty Index (created by economists at Stanford University and the IMF to collate political and economic uncertainty information in 140 countries) which shows that uncertainty has been steadily rising in recent decades. He also quotes Jostein Solheim, former CEO at Ben & Jerry’s who noted that: “There is ambiguity and paradox everywhere. For people who like the linear route forward, life is getting harder and harder, in any field.”

Prof Furr agrees, adding that “there is no linear route forward in a world where up to 65 per cent of elementary school age children may work in jobs that don’t even exist yet”.

The Furrs have come up with a term to describe the quality needed to navigate uncertainty – transilience from the Latin root to abruptly change something from one state to another.

“Every brilliant insight, choice, act and innovation only comes after a phase of uncertainty... but because uncertainty’s downsides can be so intense, they often disguise or temporarily obstruct our view of what’s possible,” says Prof Furr who points out that there is an entire business school in Denmark dedicated to teaching students how to see themselves as chaos pilots.

“Without the right tools we fall into maladaptive traps such as unproductive rumination, premature certainty and misinvention,” Prof Furr says. “If you don’t believe these traps are real, consider that in response to the Covid-19 pandemic, 110,000 people in California purchased guns.”

What strengthens the Furrs’ passion for their subject is that, during the pandemic, they went through a family crisis that stacked it up to them to apply what they were writing about in reality. While revising their book, one of their young adult children lapsed into debilitating depression. “We had to find help for our son but managing the uncertainty that followed would have been less obvious without the tools described in the book,” Prof Furr says.

“We started by reframing the situation, grateful for our own wellness and resources to be able to focus on him even though the downsides of the uncertainty still invaded our wellbeing and frayed our nerves.”

While the couple edited their text, their son lay beside them and their shared hope was to get him to smile once a day. Eventually, he came out the other side and Prof Furr describes what happened as “the reframe of the century” because “a really exhausting, disastrously expensive summer, under circumstances we would never have chosen, is what we now refer to as our ‘triumphant’ summer”.

Olive Keogh

Olive Keogh

Olive Keogh is a contributor to The Irish Times specialising in business