Maggie Jackson is a journalist who covers social trends, with a particular focus on technology’s impact on humanity. Her writing has been featured in the New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, New Philosopher, and the Los Angeles Times, among others. She is a sought-after speaker, having appeared at Harvard Business School, the Forbes CMO summit, and various top women’s leadership conferences.
Below, Maggie shares 5 key insights from her new book, Uncertain: The Wisdom and Wonder of Being Unsure. Listen to the audio version—read by Maggie herself—in the Next Big Idea App.
1. Uncertainty unsettles us – and that is its gift.
Think of how uneasy you feel on the first day of a new job or while waiting for test results. Humans are built to need answers—which makes evolutionary sense. In laboratory experiments, people are more stressed when they aren’t sure if they are going to get an electric shock than if they know one is coming.
When you confront something new, ambiguous, or unexpected, a mismatch emerges between your old expectations and a new reality. You don’t know, so body and mind spring into action. Stress hormones and chemicals activate, your heart beats fast, and you sweat. But at the same time, powerful neurotransmitters trigger remarkably positive changes in the brain. Working memory expands. Your focus broadens. Your brain becomes more receptive to new data. As one neuroscientist told me, “The brain is telling itself, ‘Something’s to be learned here!” Uncertainty is good stress.
A mindset of uncertainty is the mark of the persuasive negotiator, the most capable student, and the resourceful executive. Nobel-prize-winning scientist Katilin Karinkó labored in obscurity for decades to find the potential usefulness of mRNA. By harnessing the wakefulness of her uncertainty when things kept going wrong, she laid the groundwork for the first COVID-19 vaccines. In the days and minutes before his 1963 “I Have a Dream” speech, Martin Luther King Jr. didn’t quite know what he would say. Before the speech, he sought extra advice from his inner circle and was still revising his speech from the dais. His uncertainty allowed him to be brilliantly attuned to the divisions and tensions of the moment, and deliver one of the greatest speeches in history.
Far from miring us in inertia, unsettling uncertainty is critical to human achievement.
2. To get better at what you’re doing, try not knowing.
One morning I was standing in a Toronto operating room observing one of Canada’s top surgeons remove the cancerous half of a man’s liver. I had traveled there to see if uncertainty plays a role in superior performance during high-stakes moments.
That day, the surgeon was efficient, facile, quick, and sure. He was impressive—until he thought he’d made a lethal error and the operation ground to a halt. This surgeon epitomizes our ideal vision of swashbuckling know-how. Could our long-held notions of expertise be wrong?
“By carefully exploring the possibilities within uncertainty, adaptive experts are nimble in a crisis.”
We become “expert” by building experience and knowledge into honed automaticity. After a time, we know what to do. Chest pains must mean a heart attack—this heuristic thinking works well in predictable situations. But when something goes wrong, we tend to cling to what we already know, and begin to fail. This is called “routine” expertise. In fields from accounting to sports and medicine, years of experience are weakly correlated with skill and accuracy.
In contrast, “adaptive” experts spend more time on messy new problems. They test and evaluate more solutions, which is a practice called progressive deepening. By carefully exploring the possibilities within uncertainty, adaptive experts are nimble in a crisis.
To get better at what you do, try not knowing. Even at the top of your game, adopt a beginner’s mind. Be curious and skeptical mid-crisis or during the critical phase of a routine. Also, constantly seek harder challenges. Extend (don’t just apply) your knowledge.
Thankfully, the Toronto surgeon just had a near miss, but his saga holds a lesson for us all: True experts know when to break the inertia of their knowing to pursue greater ends. When you are uncertain, as one physician-scientist told me, that’s when you care.
3. We need more conflict.
The NASA team that discovered that water had flowed on Mars was one of the most innovative in space history. They put the first Rovers on the red planet and discovered clues to the origins of life. They did this by cultivating disagreement to gain uncertainty.
Humans love to be on the same page. We hire for fit and cluster with people like us. But teams in agreement are complacent. They tend to discuss what everyone already knows, become less accurate, and race to snap judgments. Mount Everest climbing expeditions that have diverse knowledge yet emphasize an all-for-one group mentality are more likely to suffer the death of a team member.
In contrast, mild discord and dissent spur groups to be more creative, inclusive, and effective. Is this because the best side in the argument wins? No. Such performance gains occur even if a dissenting voice is wrong. It is the uncertainty that propels a group toward better collaboration.
“Mild discord and dissent spur groups to be more creative, inclusive, and effective.”
Judicious disagreement jolts a group onto uncommon ground where the critical work of questioning, rethinking, and not-knowing can begin. As scientist Joel Chan told me, “You want to increase your uncertainty to find what you hadn’t thought of before—that’s where disagreement comes in.” In this new effervescent dynamic, assumptions are shaken. Missing evidence surfaces. Discussions intensify. This is true in groups ranging from juries, healthcare teams, and executive boards to the Supreme Court.
During the Mars Explorer Rover mission, one in five conversations were micro-conflicts that mostly included expressions of uncertainty, such as “maybe” and “sometimes.” Meetings deliberately ended with the “listening ritual,” a call for new or opposing views. Such practices were central to the project’s success. Adam Stelzner, a lead mission engineer, calls this “holding onto doubt” in order to work at the edge of what’s possible.
4. The world is not bird-free.
Once there was a teacher who was so afraid of birds that if one flew close by, she’d hide in her car. She went to see one of the world’s greatest anxiety specialists—and he gave her a guide to birds. In a few weeks, she went out and adopted a pet bird. Uncertainty is not something to fear, but rather a source of wonder, curiosity, and even delight.
We can start by “trying on” uncertainty. Try answering your phone without caller ID—a prospect that a young relative of mine called terrifying. Muse on a question without turning to Google; explore your unsureness. Or give a junior colleague the lead on a project. You may be surprised by the outcome.
People who use these exercises to learn how to lean into uncertainty wind up significantly less anxious, worried, and depressed, and they feel more resilient. Fear of the unknown is now seen as a root vulnerability for many mental disorders. When you can inhabit and leverage uncertainty, you are better able to contend with life itself, which is endlessly changeable, multi-faceted, and unpredictable.
I used to swim in city pools. Each time, I wanted a perfect swim: a lane to myself, the right water temperature, etc. During the pandemic, I moved to the shore and began swimming in the Atlantic Ocean year-round. Now I never know quite what I will get every morning. Each swim is exciting and daunting. But I am thriving in body and mind more than ever. My daily dose of uncertainty strengthens me.
5. Uncertainty may save humanity.
Great strides have been made in AI by designing models and robots that can single-mindedly pursue a goal, learning as they go. But giving increasingly powerful systems a mission and letting them take care of the rest is risky. Their unstoppability may be our demise.
“They are building AI that can be unsure of its aims and therefore be more honest, teachable, inclusive, and safe.”
That’s why some of AI’s top leaders are working to reimagine the field with uncertainty in mind. They are building AI that can be unsure of its aims and therefore be more honest, teachable, inclusive, and safe. For example, an unsure cop robot will admit that there’s a 30 percent probability that the man on the street is not the suspect, rather than simply giving the go-ahead on an arrest. At Virginia Tech, I met one of the world’s first “I-Don’t-Know” robots and saw firsthand their potential to change our contested relations with technology.
Perhaps most intriguingly, scientists working to imbue AI with uncertainty told me that making humble, honest systems was helping them cultivate these qualities within themselves. One day, unsure AI may hold up a mirror to our better selves, inspiring us to admit to and harness our uncertainty.
Or even sooner, we could begin to role model this essential human quality for each other. When you are unsure, you can see the possibility within someone who differs from you. When you can question the idea that knowing should be instant, you can recognize how rarely one tempo, one viewpoint, or one template suffice.
We are a long way from fully realizing the unsung potential of being unsure. But I suspect that a seismic shift in humanity’s approach to not-knowing is at hand. It is not outrageous (and increasingly it may be necessary) to ponder a future in which our uncertainty can save humanity.
To listen to the audio version read by author Maggie Jackson, download the Next Big Idea App today: