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Certainty

As I get older, I become more and more uncertain about what feels like everything. I see so many people at least present as being certain about so many things – politics, religion, relationships, careers, technology, motivations, incentives, economics, science, health, diet, exercise, what color you should paint your bedroom, etc.

What’s interesting is I suspect and to some extent know that I was this way, or at least moreso than I am now, when I was younger. Is that just a symptom of inexperience and lack of perspective? I’m not sure. I suspect that’s at least a contributing factor, though.

I don’t really intend for this to be just a lament in the style of “old man yells at clouds”, so what am I writing this for? I suppose it’s to explore the idea of uncertainty, to roll around that big ball of uncertainty, and see how it feels.

I suspect one could begin to feel more and more uncertain about things and react with a kind of panic – sort of an “oh no, if I don’t know x anymore, how can I function???“. I’m finding myself having the opposite reaction much of the time, blessedly. More like “I don’t really know the answer to x, isn’t that amusing?”

I do still have opinions about things, but I try to intentionally treat them as sort of “trial” things, if that makes any sense. More like “I kinda suspect x about y, I wonder if that will end up being right?”

Ok, so maybe an interesting thing to explore is where I maybe do still feel some degree of certainty, and try to challenge that. Sort of do the “ok but what if I’m completely wrong about this?” exercise on something I feel more strongly about.

For instance, in my work I sometimes get frustrated that some people like to build things with what I perceive as far more technical complexity than is needed. My biased opinion is that people do this because they simply enjoy making complex things, enjoy learning new things/technologies, or (when I’m feeling less charitable) want to bulk up their resume by learning a new technology.

My pretty strong sense is that this is a net “bad”. Of course it depends on what “bad” means in this context, what your goals are, what your utility function is, etc. And probably that’s where the disagreement/tension comes from, really – my utility function is more like “accomplish x business goal as simply as possible, because a simple solution will be more maintainable and use fewer resources”. But perhaps someone else’s is “accomplish x business goal while preparing as much as possible for future needs, because increased future needs almost always happen and it’s best to build in additional capacity early on”. Or, less charitably, “accomplish x business goal while improving my future job prospects as much as possible because corporations do not care about you and a rationale actor should be selfish in their dealings with an employer”.

Which, really, put that way, I don’t think I disagree with! Perhaps an essay for another day, but a sort of pet peeve of mine is when people pretend that an employing corporation cares about employees and you should be willing to make selfless sacrifices for them. I find that exploitative and disgusting. But, like I said, another day.

Ok, so, it almost seems like I’m a little less certain about my work thing, huh? Maybe just exploring that and introspecting a bit helped reduce my certainty. I don’t think I’ve changed my preferences or utility function, but perhaps I’ve grown my empathy in that area a bit? Not sure, but one can hope.

I hope as I grow older I’m starting to gain a little equanimity, in some ways and areas. In the past I’ve felt a little… frustrated, I think, because I felt like I didn’t have much equanimity, and I perhaps sought out ways to suppress my emotions. I’ve since tried to embrace my enthusiasm and excitability, and encourage it in times when I feel that’s healthy. So maybe the equanimity I want is more about embracing uncertainty, and less about being stoic or calm all the time.

In closing, a fable that has resonated with me for a long time and serves as a helpful reminder. I’ve copied this from Derek Sivers in case that page is ever removed on his site:

A farmer had only one horse. One day, his horse ran away.

His neighbors said, “I’m so sorry. This is such bad news. You must be so upset.”

The man just said, “We’ll see.”

A few days later, his horse came back with twenty wild horses following. The man and his son corralled all twenty-one horses.

His neighbors said, “Congratulations! This is such good news. You must be so happy!”

The man just said, “We’ll see.”

One of the wild horses kicked the man’s only son, breaking both his legs.

His neighbors said, “I’m so sorry. This is such bad news. You must be so upset.”

The man just said, “We’ll see.”

The country went to war, and every able-bodied young man was drafted to fight. The war was terrible and killed every young man, but the farmer’s son was spared, since his broken legs prevented him from being drafted.

His neighbors said, “Congratulations! This is such good news. You must be so happy!”

The man just said, “We’ll see.”

Revisions fart