Unsui: Learning to Embrace Uncertainty

Embrace Uncertainty
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Let’s do a thought experiment and think of ourselves as water. As we go through life, we pour ourselves into different containers: a school, a job, a circle of friends. They give us shape and hold us together by providing income and social identity. The downside is that we risk

Let’s do a thought experiment and think of ourselves as water. As we go through life, we pour ourselves into different containers: a school, a job, a circle of friends. They give us shape and hold us together by providing income and social identity. The downside is that we risk becoming too dependent on them. If they leak, crack or disappear altogether, we risk being spilt on the ground ourselves.

 

We need to cultivate the ability to continually flow from one container to another as circumstances change. In stable times, we can linger, and flow slowly. But in turbulent times we must adapt quickly.

 

For 200 years, most of us have depended on a container called the job within a larger one called the company. But the job, along with so many of our favourite containers, are made redundant by technology and other changes, as we are unprepared.

 

We have distanced ourselves so much from the habit of flowing and adapting that we now give it fancy names such as leadership, entrepreneurship, design, or innovation. We assume these are things only a select few are supposed to do, and passively wait for experts to deliver us from an uncertain future. Our belief in orderly change was always a complacent illusion, and our dependence on experts an abdication of responsibility. Our biggest obstacle is our fear of uncertainty and disruption.

 

The alternative is to overturn this attitude and learn to flow within uncertainty. Research on emergence–the patterns of adaptive systems–provides actionable lessons for doing so. The first is the recognition that innovation is just another name for the habit of evolution, which defines us as humans. The second is that evolution emerges in the space between order and chaos, as self organising systems continuously adapt to changing circumstances. The third is that evolution is fundamentally just learning.

 

We are not talking about passive classroom learning where someone teaches us facts. The future is unpredictable; we can’t predict what knowledge we will require. We can only learn to engage with uncertainty as it emerges by practicing and developing our ‘co-evolution muscles.’ We can do this by emulating how musicians learn to improvise, craftsmen to create, or the surfer to ride the wave. They build and play to learn, learn to build and play. There is no difference between practice and performance. We also need new porous and self-organisation models that enhance this spirit of permanent startup, for example by emulating film makers and organising ourselves around projects instead of jobs. Or as Geoffrey West suggests, emulating cities instead of companies and collaborating in a variety of activities with those around us. Sometimes for money, sometimes for play, sometimes to learn, sometimes for all of these. Zen novices are called Unsui, which literally translates as cloud and water, but also the ability to float and flow, at once with and without form. It is this spirit of perpetual emergence which will allow us to surf the boundary between order and chaos.