Can you be positive about uncertainty?

Tunnel in the fog

What's around the corner? Can you cope with not knowing for certain?

As an antidote to some of the recent posts which have examined ways of overcoming irrationality in decision making, it is time to highlight a celebration of the intuitive and the acceptance of ambiguity.

The concept of Positive Uncertainty has had a strong influence on some of the modern theories of career choice — especially those which emphasise chance and complexity, such as planned happenstance or the chaos theory of careers. The idea was introduced in 1989 by H.B. Gelatt (who appears to call himself H.B. — possibly to induce uncertainty in those he meets) and it was a complete turnaround from an earlier article he wrote advocating a totally rational approach to decision making.

Gelatt, H.B. (1989) Positive uncertainty: A new decision-making framework for counseling. Journal of Counseling Psychology, 36(2), 252-6.

The basic premise of Positive Uncertainty is that purely rational, objective decision making strategies are no longer sufficient for the complex and rapidly changing world we live in. He points out that people almost always fall short of the rational ideal when it comes to making decisions — they are often unsystematic and instinctive. Whilst one approach would be to encourage people to be more rational through counteracting cognitive biases, another approach might be to help people to get better at using their instinctive, non-rational decision making processes.

In the original paper, Gelatt came up with three basic guidelines. In later versions this has expanded to two attitudes and four paradoxical principles.

Two attitudes:

  1. Accept that the future is uncertain — and will always contain uncertainty despite any efforts to make it more certain
  2. Be positive about this uncertainty — because things are not determined in advance, there is room for you to make a difference

Four paradoxical principles:

  1. Be focused and flexible about what you want
    Being focused on your goals can help you achieve what you want but it can prevent you from discovering new goals and taking advantage of unexpected opportunities.
  2. Be aware of and wary about what you know
    Obtain and make good use of information in making your decision, but always be aware that information is usually limited, often incomplete, sometimes irrelevant and frequently misleading.
  3. Be realistic and optimistic about what you believe
    Your beliefs will influence what you perceive when making a decision and your commitment to following through on that decision. Be aware of their influence on your decision making. Ensure that your beliefs are a bridge and not a barrier.
  4. Be practical and magical about what you do to decide
    Become aware of your own decision strategies. Explore alternative strategies in order to be in a position to choose the best approach for each individual decision. Use both your head and your heart.

In the introduction to their book Creative Decision Making: Using Positive Uncertainty, H.B and Carol Gelatt ask a series of questions to see how ready the reader is for the concept of positive uncertainty. Try them for yourself.

Have you ever…

  • wanted something, obtained it and then found you really wanted something else?
  • set yourself a goal you believed in only to find a better goal along the way?
  • made a decision you knew wasn’t entirely rational?
  • found it was advantageous not to know something in advance?
  • had unrealistic fantasies about your future?
  • experienced a self-fulfilling prophecy?
  • decided not to decide?
  • made up your mind with certainty and then changed it?

Further reading

  • Krieshok, T.S., Black, M.D. & McKay, R.A. (2009) Career decision making: The limits of rationality and the abundance of non-conscious processes. Journal of Vocational Behavior, 75(3), 275-90. — This recent article gives a comprehensive overview of research and thinking on rational and instinctive decision making processes. It even delves in to some heavy neuroscience, but you can skip that bit — I did!

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  1. Time travel « Careers – in Theory
  2. Are you a maximiser or a satisficer? « Careers – in Theory
  3. Applied Chaos « Careers – in Theory

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