Voyaging into an uncertain future.

The world can seem an uncertain, dangerous place at the moment.  As I write, the consequences of the Brexit vote are still uncertain in a wide range of fields. The Labour party is in turmoil, Syria is in rather worse turmoil, terrorism continues, climate change continues, and we look with incredulity at the prospect of a Trump presidency.

It’s easy to feel unsettled, to lose hope, or just tune out.  A friend told me she’d stopped listening to the news, because it was too depressing.

The media tends to portray everything as positive or negative, (mostly negative, because we’re hard wired to pay more attention to threats than hope) and communications professionals like to advise us not to mix our messages.  However the reality is that life is complicated, and amongst the awful trends, there are also hopeful ones.

It’s easy to forget the progress we’ve made: For example 100 years ago, British women didn’t have the vote. We couldn’t get a degree from Cambridge University until 1948 and the last of Cambridge’s men-only colleges (Magdalene College) only started accepting women in 1988. That doesn’t mean the job’s done of course, because there are still a few bastions of sexism around. Last summer, the members of the Garrick Club in London (at the heart of the British Establishment) voted to continue their ban on women members.

I spend much of my time involved in helping build the low carbon economy, and frequently find myself worrying that it’s not happening fast enough.  However the other day it was pointed out to me that the UK really has made dramatic progress in moving away from dirty coal to cleaner renewable sources of power: we’re much further along the energy transition than people realise.

I dug out the Department of Energy and Climate Change’s last batch of figures, and it’s true.  In DECCs Energy Trends Report of June 2016 it points out that the UK’s demand for coal has halved over the last year.  Renewables now produce far more of our electricity than do coal fired power stations, and nearly half of our electricity comes from low carbon sources. Overall, the UK’s energy demand is declining because of efficiency improvements and technological changes (such as low energy lighting) and we’re steadily becoming less dependent on imported power. We’re on track to close our remaining coal fired power stations by 2025

So it’s a good news story. But what should we do about it?

Some would say “don’t tell them the good news because then they’ll relax and think the job’s done”.  Others say “tell them the good news, because it’s inspiring knowing you’re making progress, so they’ll do more”.

I find these different attitudes interesting, and think they relate to different personality preferences.

Some people hate uncertainty. This can become dysfunctional, if they  try to reduce uncertainties of life by excessively checking and rechecking things,. For example, micromanaging an employee, or endlessly comparing reviews before a buying something.  However the upside of this personality preference is that because these people hate having things undecided and “up in the air” they are often quite decisive, which can be a very useful trait to have, particularly in business.   For these people, telling them some good news may indeed let them metaphorically tick the box and then forget about it.

Other people are much more comfortable with ambiguity and uncertainty (sometimes excessively so) and this often goes alongside a tendency to be creative. This is because innovation is very often a voyage into the unknown so it’s very useful to feel comfortable exploring an uncertain situation to develop an idea. For very creative people, uncertainty can often be motivating, because it implies there’s scope for their creativity to make a difference.  For people with these traits, telling them the “good news” can indeed be motivating because it tells them that they’re on the right track.

It seems that the decisiveness traits are a bit more common than the creative ones (maybe 75% of the population), but  I think it’s important for all of us to develop our tolerance of uncertainty.  Practice helps, even if it’s as simple as trying a new sandwich filling for lunch.

Not only does a greater tolerance of uncertainty allow wiser, more thoughtful decision making, it also helps us all be more comfortable in uncertain times, and more creative in coming up with solutions to the difficult problems we face.