This blog begins a series to distinguish specific items that can support cultivating wisdom. Each item inquires into a specific “tension” or idea. In this case, the tension between Certainty and Clarity. The confusion and tension between certainty and clarity can cause a great of suffering and with practice can cultivate wisdom.

Meet the “U” in VUCA

Most of us in the learning and development profession have become familiar with the acronym VUCA—Volatile, Uncertainty, Complexity, and Ambiguity—during the last two decades.

Each of these terms represents a phenomenon that affects the human condition and influences our view of reality.

Volatility and complexity tend to measure externalities that experience the pace or scope of change. Uncertainty and ambiguity often describe internal conditions or experiences that define our observations and perceptions of change.

We will discover that our relationship to clarity is bound up in our understanding of certainty and uncertainty.

Certainty v. Clarity

Let’s begin by distinguishing these two terms.

Certainty is an emotional state. It is informed by fear that offers a sense of safety and security in a predictable outcome. We grow to expect a specific outcome to hold fear in abeyance.

  • Certainty is grinding on the last 10% of a decision to get all possible information, at the expense of time and possibly market advantage.
  • Certainty rests on how and what. It requires that we know the outcome and that we’ve figured out how any choice will impact the outcome before taking any action.
  • By its name, certainty is designed to avoid “uncertainty.” 

Clarity is a state of mind. It is the result of an inquiry that clears the mind. It allows us to know the next step without having to know every aspect of the outcome.

  • Clarity occurs when you have enough information to make an informed, optimal decision. Then you make that decision.
  • Clarity rests on a grounded sense of why. It gets you out of bed with a sense of deep commitment before you know whether customers are lining up to purchase your services. Here, purpose is key.
  • Clarity is design to be with “uncertainty.”

The term, “attached,” above is from an Eastern wisdom context for “attachment” to mean “fixated on” or “obsessed with.” This is different from a Western context that tends to mean “bonding with.”

Knowing v. Discovering

Clarity says, “This problem deserves your attention,” while certainty tells you, “Wait until you know the answer.”

Here’s the rub: the essence of VUCA and the nature of change reveal that we can never know all the factors of any endeavor. In fact, we discover some of the most important variables after we’ve moved forward with our effort.

If we become attached to certainty, we will miss critical signs, patterns, and possible opportunities to alter, question, or clarify our direction.

Sure, we may produce our “expected” outcome, but we may be headed for a cliff. Or, we may miss critical opportunities to learn, innovate, and grow in ways that produce a different or more sustainable result.

The wise person realizes this: nothing is fixed or permanent. The best-laid plans or thoughts are subject to influence. Only a clear mind—unattached to an outcome—can be with the uncertainty that opens us to discovery.

Zen master Shunryu Suzuki points to this level of openness: “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s, there are few.”

So, how do we move forward in uncertainty?

Unclear v. Uncertain

There’s a big difference between being unclear and being uncertain.

Being unclear is not knowing which step to take.

Being uncertain is not knowing what the outcome of taking that step will be.

It’s important to distinguish between the two and to be able to recognize whether it’s a lack of clarity or the fear of uncertainty that’s getting in the way.

Unlike certainty, clarity isn’t reached via a tortuous route that can involve our identity or ego. When we personalize outcomes, our ego conflates being certain with being right. We then filter out ideas that question our desired outcome, ignore feedback we do not wish to hear, or deny data that “gets in our way” that we do not wish to see.

According to Steven Stosny, Ph.D., “To create a feeling of certainty, the brain must filter out far more information than it processes. In other words, the more certain you feel, the more likely you are wrong.”

And here’s an important paradox: the more self-assured one is of an outcome, the greater the chance of being caught off guard or paralyzed by fear.

Because clarity is not an emotional state, it is unclouded and unhindered, with the humility to choose the best next step.

  • Those who are clear expect to be wrong or surprised and can choose in the face of change.
  • Those that must be certain before acting find themselves trapped—unable to act until they are certain.

A time-tested truism states that the only way to predict the future is to create it. Develop yourself to embrace uncertainty: use the result of each step to pave the direction to that future, now.

What You Can Do to Embrace Uncertainty

The good news is that you possess the clarity required for any effort. We simply need to let go of any attachments to goals and outcomes and to trust our choices. These practices offer support:

  1. Find a mindful practice that creates space in your life for reflection, introspection, and inquiry.
  2. Notice any disappointment. When it occurs, first, discover any expectations. Then practice tolerating uncertainty by letting go of any attachment to expectations or to the outcome.
  3. Learn to distinguish between being unclear (not knowing which step to take) and being uncertain (not knowing what the outcome of taking that step will be).
  4. Practice differentiating outcomes as a fixed event or result from direction as a way forward from one’s intention, purpose, or commitment.

This post complements the blog post: Clear Thinking Cultivates Wisdom


tony-zampella-headshot

Tony Zampella is the learning designer at Bhavana Learning Group (previously, Zampella Group), which serves coaches, educators, and learning professionals and executives.

As an instructor, researcher, and designer of contemplative learning programs and practices, Tony’s work explores the human side of change by bringing wisdom to learning. His focus includes ontological inquiry, Integral meta-theory, and Buddhist wisdom to sustain contemplative practice.