Camerado! I give you my hand!

Camerado! I give you my hand!

Allons! The road is before us!

Monday, December 25, 2023

The Power of Deferred Resolution

How do you sit with uncertainty?

Most people do not do it well. Our brains are wired to search for solutions to problems, and we really, really like knowing the answers. Lots of people have negative memories of school because not knowing the answers—especially in front of our classmates—resulted in failing and embarrassment. Who doesn’t have memories of an English teacher scolding us for not knowing exactly what a novelist, poet, or playwright meant in his or her work?

We seek a diagnosis when we go to the doctor. It feels shocking when the doctor confides that he or she doesn’t know what’s wrong with us, even after multiple tests. A cloud of confusion settles into our very cracks, and we, typically, assume the worst1. If this person who has studied extensively about the very sort of thing I am presenting doesn’t know what it is, what hope do I have of getting the correct treatment?

Medicine’s default state is uncertainty, but the culture of medicine has little tolerance for ambiguity. This means that doctors will conduct test after test and prescribe all sorts of treatments in an attempt to understand what malady we actually have—and they still get it wrong too often. Misdiagnoses in medicine are dismayingly common.

In part, this is because there isn’t time to languish amongst uncertainty in the medical field—lives are at stake. A few days could mean the difference between life or death in some cases. The doctors rush to find answers, and in that rush they sometimes make mistakes because they aren’t looking in the right place. (If you were a fan of the TV show “House” from a few years ago, you know what I mean. A grumpy misanthropic doctor can always figure out the weird diagnosis in time after he and his staff struggle with it for the majority of the show.)

When we are faced with uncertainty, we want answers and we want them sooner rather than later. But this can be a problem, and there may be a better way.

In his book Nonsense: The Power of Not Knowing, Jamie Holmes writes,

“Dwelling calmly among feelings of uncertainty will make you more likely to make a rational decision. The longer you sit with the not knowing, the more your odds of making a rational decision increase.”

Think about how you feel when presented with problems, in your work or your life, that don’t match up to what you expect or know. How much information do you seek, especially if you feel pushed for time? Do you stop asking questions when you have heard enough to make a “diagnosis”? Why?

According to Holmes, “people under time pressure seize on earlier information and ignore later cues.” This means that we could ostensibly miss the correct solution, because we are blocking out later information.

This uncertainty can be daunting, but you shouldn’t fear it. Rushing to find the “right” answer can cause more problems than it solves. Humans have a tendency towards closure, so when we are faced with a conundrum, we try to make sense of it. Holmes explains,

“This tendency {towards closure} has vast repercussions…it changes the way we evaluate an idea or consider an explanation, and it makes us less creative and more confident about a course of action even when we are wrong. Cognitive closure is a bit like shutting the windows of our open minds. When various pressures pile up, these windows don’t merely close…they slam shut, and they lock.”

In my dog training practice, I sometimes find myself puzzled by a dog’s behavior and I am unable to come up with a quick answer. When I get stuck, I know I need three things: time away from the work, a way to clear my mind from the work for a few hours, and a different puzzle that is not too difficult2 to solve. I need some time to gestate, to think about something unrelated. If I don’t have enough time to engage in an unrelated-to-dogs hobby (such as a walk in the woods alone) before I need the answer, I will seek out a crossword puzzle, a jigsaw puzzle, or even Sudoku (which I rarely play for fun) to help me try to order the world a bit differently. Studies show that when humans are faced with uncertainty, we seek closure anywhere we can find it-—and this can help us have breakthrough insights in regards to unrelated problems.3

Norman begins to hyperventilate when he sees the doctor. “Doc, I’m sure I’ve got liver disease.”

“Nonsense!” says the doctor. “You’d never know if you had liver disease. There’s no discomfort of any kind.”

“Exactly!” Says Norman. “Those are my precise symptoms!”

Training yourself to embrace uncertainty isn’t easy, but it’s a valuable skill, because we all understand that life contains a multitude of problems to solve. Rushing for closure is rarely the best way to get ourselves unstuck.

Dwell for a bit in the not knowing, and see if an answer doesn’t come.


1.   1.  Our brains are hard-wired towards negativity; this is called the “negativity bias.”

2.     If the puzzle or problem you choose is too difficult to solve, it will just frustrate you further, instead of giving you a "win." Conversely, it shouldn't be so easy that you can solve it in a minute or less. Go for medium difficulty, where your brain is engaged for a while, and you will stick with it until you solve it.

3.     You might be surprised to learn that everything is related, really.