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Therefore certainty is not only something of no use but is also in fact damaging, if we value reliability. Carlo Rovelli

Have you ever wondered why we seem so desperate to know things ‘for certain?’ I think there are many reasons why.

At the benign end, ‘knowing’ is an anchor that gives us a sense of ground, even if it’s illusory.

We need that. It helps us navigate ambiguity. Provided we’re open to reassessing ideas as more evidence emerges or as we’re impacted by experience, that’s okay.

The problem is when we attach to being certain or confuse our sense of self with being right. Oh the trouble that brings. This is one of the more destructive sides of being human.

We need to know, to be right and then: to assert that rightness.

You see it in relationships where people who loved each other wake up one day to find that they have dug trenches around that need and created a no-man’s land instead of a life between them.

Or on the contrary, when we cling to an earlier idea about the other, who or what they should be (our idea of them really) refusing to recognize that we, or they, or circumstances, have changed.

We cannot know for certain who we will become, let alone someone else.

At work, poor or even life-threatening decisions can be made when someone’s need to be right supersedes that of having the best information; or when intellectual rigour is sacrificed for agreement.

We need to test our decisions. Invite the mud-throwers. Good ideas will withstand scrutiny. They will likely improve because of it.

At the extreme end of course, people kill each other over it.

So and so said – we declare (often inaccurately) as we head out to annihilate those who do not share our truth. (We of course, are certain about what we know and that it’s right.)

And yet as history shows almost nothing is certain; today’s fact is tomorrow’s fiction.

What was once a truth becomes little more than a stepping-stone to something else.

  • Galileo was imprisoned for saying that the earth was not at the centre of the universe.
  • Sailors did not venture past the horizon concerned about falling off the edge of the earth.

This does not make earlier theories wrong so much as shows that what we know at any point in time is limited by the questions we ask, the assumptions we make and the tools that are available for assessing them.

Isn’t this liberating?

Reflect too that we are mistake-making machines.

Our memory, for example, is fallible.

We possess cognitive biases that mean two people can witness the same event and experience a completely different reality.

There is a good reason why. Biases help us focus attention and make sense of a world in which we would otherwise be overwhelmed.

So does this mean we throw rigour to the wind, shrug our shoulders and say that if we can never be right the learning does not matter. Or that a (truly) expert opinion has no more value than an uninformed guess?

Not at all.

Developing and testing theories, acquiring evidence, reassessing assumptions, refining the process is why we can now fly to the moon or cure disease.

People who dedicate their lives to studying a certain discipline know a great deal more about that area (but not necessarily everything else) than other people.

Right or wrong is not the goal. A goal, if we have to name it, is learning.  And uncertainty simply means that whatever we think we know, in the future, we are likely to know more.

What if we stopped applauding people for being right but valued considered views with space for doubt?

What if we stopped punishing mistakes and recognized, instead, that mistake-making is wired into us and has a purpose, that it’s fundamental to innovation and growth?

What a different reality we would create.

Think about it:

  • Not being 100 percent certain what will happen helps you not to take a relationship that you treasure for granted. (This is not the same as distrust.)
  • Not being certain that your project will work means inviting views that help you uncover flaws and manage risk or even take a new direction. (No matter how smart an individual is, the collective intelligence is greater.)
  • Not being certain means that instead of dismissing other people as less knowledgeable or worthy you empathise with their flaws because you see how like you they are.

Featured image by Andrew Vucko 

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