Why we fear uncertainty (and what to do about it)

This piece is an excerpt from Think Like a Rocket Scientist. 

The Jet Propulsion Laboratory, known as JPL, is a small city of scientists and engineers in Pasadena, California. Located just east of Hollywood, JPL has been responsible for operating interplanetary spacecraft for decades. If you’ve ever seen video footage of a Mars landing, you’ve seen the inside of JPL’s mission support area.

In the early 1960s, JPL was in charge of the unmanned Ranger missions, which were designed to study the Moon to pave the way for the Apollo astronauts. The Ranger spacecraft would be launched toward the Moon, take close-up photos of the lunar surface, and beam those images back to Earth before plummeting into the Moon. The first six missions ended in failure, leading critics to accuse JPL officials of adopting a cavalier “shoot-and-hope” approach. But a later mission succeeded when a JPL engineer happened to bring peanuts to the mission control room. From then on, peanuts became a staple at JPL for each landing.

In critical moments, these otherwise rational, no-nonsense rocket scientists—who have dedicated their lives to exploring the unknown—look for certainty at the bottom of a Planters peanut bag. 

Why we fear uncertainty

As if that’s not enough, many of them wear their worn-out good-luck jeans or bring a talisman from a previous successful landing—doing everything that a dedicated sports fan might do to create the illusion of certainty and control. If the landing goes successfully, Mission Control promptly morphs into a circus. There’s no trace of cool and calm. Instead, having conquered the beast of uncertainty, engineers will begin jumping up and down, high-fiving, fist-pumping, bear-hugging, and disappearing into puddles of joyful tears. 

We’re all programmed with the same fear of the uncertain. 

Our predecessors who weren’t afraid of the unknown became food for saber-toothed tigers. But the ancestors who viewed uncertainty as life-threatening lived long enough to pass their genes on to us. 

Finding Certainty

In the modern world, we look for certainty in uncertain places. We search for order in chaos, the right answer in ambiguity, and conviction in complexity. “We spend far more time and effort on trying to control the world,” Yuval Noah Harari writes, “than on trying to understand it.” We look for the step-by-step formula, the shortcut, the hack—the right bag of peanuts. Over time, we lose our ability to interact with the unknown.

Our yearning for certainty leads us to pursue seemingly safe solutions. Marketers use the same bag of tricks over and over again but expect different results. Aspiring entrepreneurs remain in dead-end jobs because of the certainty they get in the form of a seemingly stable paycheck. Pharma companies develop me-too drugs that offer only marginal improvement over the competition as opposed to developing the one that’s going to cure Alzheimer’s disease.

But it’s only when we sacrifice the certainty of answers and when we take our training wheels off that breakthroughs happen. 

If you stick to the familiar, you won’t find the unexpected. 

Those who get ahead in this century will dance with the great unknown and find danger, rather than comfort, in the status quo.

Want to squash your fear of uncertainty?

To discover practical insights on how to quash your fear of uncertainty, check out Ozan Varol’s forthcoming book, Think Like a Rocket Scientist: Simple Strategies You Can Use to Make Giant Leaps in Work and Life, from which this article was excerpted.  Think Like a Rocket Scientist, is now available for pre-order.