I’m using “maximum life ambiguity” to describe a state in which you have neither fixed your axiology not your epistemology. You don’t know what you want and you don’t know what is. You can’t state the problem except by handwaving because the goal state is unclear, and the initial state is unclear as well. You can only hand wave and point and say it is a wicked problem or that it is difficult to explain or formalise or pin down.
How to act then?
Life comes at you at shotgun point in every moment, it’s not like you can ask for a time out and sit and think things through and figure things out, and then carry on living.
I have been thinking this for long. A related idea is the idea of moral uncertainty which I like a lot because it speaks from the same place of uncertainty – from a place that understands both epistemic humility and epistemic responsibility – in other words, it takes the bull by the horns.
In what follows I present a variety of heuristics and frameworks I have collected and used over the past two years to think about and live life day-to-day whilst grappling with these uncertainties.
Living from within ambiguity
Heuristics for living and thinking life under ambiguity are divided under 3 main sections:
- Goal construction
- Pursuing reasonable instrumental goals
- Cheap stuff
Following I attack each section in turn.
The keyword here is Effectuation, about which I talked previously. It is partially a blueprint for how to act without an object level goal, with the meta-level goal being to build a startup. It refocuses the question from what must you do (axiological and teleological) to what can you do (exploratory and teleonomical).
According to the theory, goals emerge as ones takes available means to do what is possible, in the vicinity, in the adjacent possible, and as one does that stakeholders and commitments will be added to the enterprise, and goals will emerge.
And effectuation is really nice, but it is a framework for entrepreneurship – for the time being. The question is how to lead your life day to day under massive uncertainty?
I have collected over the past 2 years a bunch of heuristics. It was unclear then why I was attracted to them, but in hindsight it seems clear. They are divided into 2 sections: a) Pursuing reasonable instrumental goals, b) Cheap stuff.
Pursue reasonable Instrumental Goals
This is a relatively simple idea with two main forks: 1) Pursuing resources that are generally useful like money or knowledge. It is unlikely that these will be a handicap, whatever goals end up being constructed; 2) Going through the motions faster. Even if it is unclear where you are going, the faster you go, the faster you’ll get there. This pretty much means running on a faster tempo. (That is, shortening the total time it takes you to go through your decision-making cycle – presumably starting with observing and ending with acting – for the same result quality).
Do cheap stuff
This section is divided into 5 main ideas: 1) Opportunistic decision-making, 2) Little bets, 3) Convex payoffs, 4) Strategic information gathering.
- Opportunistic decision making
Says Rao, that opportunism is a “(…) sense of timing and leverage, adaptability and willingness to rapidly shelve existing plans and disrupt procedures.” And that a way to achieve it is as follows:
- “Start by training (untraining?) yourself to be more of a daydreaming, idle, idea person. Put more unrealistic, unachievable desires in your head. Things that you know are going to be too difficult to attain from where you are now. This is how you prepare for luck.
- Become aware of, and start cultivating, your ability to recognize opportunity. This is NOT the same as trend-spotting or trend-prediction. You are not trying to sensitize yourself to happenings in the world at large with a “listener” mindset. You are watching with a motivated bias for connections to things you’ve already thought about in some depth.
- You’ve started noticing the right things? Good. Time to start probing. Probing means idle playing and dabbling. If something catches your eye, poke it with a metaphoric stick. Click on random ads, connect with people who intrigue you in unclear ways, act on impulses. Donot get sucked in and get addicted only to small, idle experiments. The key to probing is to drive towards yourself more information about opportunities you might be able to act on, and less information about stuff that will not yield opportunities. The reason this works is that most people just manage a deluge of zeroth-order information broadcast at everybody, and filter out what they don’t want. To such people, it seems silly to actually goafter even more information than comes at you naturally. But that’s the key: information coming at everybody, no matter how sophisticated your filtering, is of limited value. Until you probe to discover first-order information that is available to all at low effort, but which few bother to poke out, you don’t have much of an informational advantage. Think of it as using your stick to clear away fallen leaves as you stroll through the park. No more complex than that. No high-effort digging. Just more information than the guy without a stick.
- Start developing a sense for leverage. Leverage is what creates disproportionate returns. Opportunists aren’t lazy, they just act in focused bursts and get more returns for every ounce of action. But this only happens with a lot of idle watching. Leverage is a combination of timing, selection and energy bursts. You develop your instincts for leverage by pushing with varying amounts of intensity on the opportunities that your constant and restless probing will reveal. This will gradually lower your resistance to agile action, lower the inertia of your planned, reactive or procedural thinking, and prime you to act in bigger ways.
- Act. If you’ve cultivated your opportunistic instincts in time, when an actual opportunity comes, you will recognize it faster, be more prepared to act given your background ideas, more armed to act, given the extra information your probing will have delivered you, and finally, more willing to act, even at the cost of disrupting well-laid plans, ingrained behaviors and ponderous rituals. Your sense of leverage will tell you how much you need to do. If you’ve accepted my religious preaching, you won’t be held back by an unnecessary sense of guilt about trying to steal a bargain from Mother Nature when she isn’t looking. But at some point, you’ll actually have to start placing your bets, so learn to tell yourself in no uncertain terms, pure black-and-white terms: this is it; I am going for it. The worst thing ever is not knowing when you are committing, and paying the high cost of a ‘dip’ without realizing it. I did it once. It wasn’t pleasant
- Burst. If all your work disciplines were acquired through a moral ethic and a sense of static work-life balance, you won’t be able to do this. Within an extremely short period of time you have to bet a LOT. Not just direct effort (as in staying up nights), but relationships, earned trust, all your brownie points, money.
- Rinse and Repeat. Here is the fun part. More often than not, you’ll lose. Watch leopards hunt on the Discovery channel. You’ll see burst after burst trail off into lazy ambles. That’s how you live the opportunist life, like a hunter. Which means after every failed burst, you go back to your laid-back, droopy-eyed-but-watchful life, waiting for the next window of opportunity.”
- Little bets
“Little bets are concrete actions taken to discover, test, and develop ideas that are achievable and affordable. They begin as creative possibilities that get iterated and refined over time, and they are particularly valuable when trying to navigate amid uncertainty, create something new, or attend to open-ended problems.”
- Convex payoff actions
This idea comes from Nicholas Nassim Taleb, in his book Antifragile. The idea is that you only play games that are tilted in your favour, games that have bounded losses, but unbounded gains.
- Strategic information gathering
Here the focus is on the taking cheap actions that fail or succeed at giving you information soon after taking them, be this information about yourself or the world.
(With regards to information about yourself, I strongly endorse Mark’s recommendation to see a therapist. Best value for money ever, even if not necessarily a “cheap” action.)
(Note that the above all interact: cheap stuff shortens tempo, cheap stuff has convex payoffs, strategic information gathering is knowledge, etc – this ontology is a first pass.)
(It feels wrong to give a conclusion to an essay that collects heuristics to deal with life ambiguity. So I won’t.)