The Importance of Uncertainty

The importance of uncertainty cannot be under-estimated when preparing people for work
The importance of uncertainty cannot be under-estimated when preparing people for work

Setting out for Loughborough University (to guest speak at their entrepreneur’s ‘ThinkBig’ awards) I was reminded of the insight and wisdom of Patrick Awuah.

Earlier in June of that year I had listened to him talk about the importance of uncertainty at the GBSN conference in Tunisia…

To give you some context, Patrick left Ghana as a teenager to attend a US college.

Qualifications gained, he then spent nearly a decade with Microsoft before exiting the commercial world to return to his home nation and establish Ashesi University.

This institution’s bold mission is to ‘educate African leaders of exceptional integrity and professional ability’ and as this TED talk testifies, his work is gaining global attention.

What struck me about Patrick’s words in Tunis was the eloquence and clarity of his thinking as well as vision for education in Ghana.

When discussing the need for entrepreneurial leadership he talked about the importance of uncertainty and creating an appropriate framework within which students could learn. His words resonated with me and I was inspired by the purpose and scale of his challenge.

A framework of uncertainty

Change is the watchword in today’s world of work . The traditional certainties and careers enjoyed by previous generations no longer exist. In this global economic malaise, preparing people for such uncertainty is vital but it is as much about how we teach as what we teach.

importance of uncertainty
Professor Sugata Mitra

Writing for the Guardian (also in June 2013) about teaching methodology, Professor of educational technology at Newcastle University, Sugata Mitra, argues that we must seek “Questions that engage learners in a world of unknowns. Questions that will occupy their minds through their waking hours and sometimes their dreams.

“The ability to find things out quickly and accurately [will] become the predominant skill. The ability to discriminate between alternatives, then put facts together to solve problems [will] be critical. That’s a skill that future employers [will] admire immensely” says Sugata.

Maverick to mainstream

Patrick and Sugata are two educational entrepreneurs who believe in the importance of uncertainty. In their view, empowering the curious mind so it is ready to take on the challenges posed by work and societies is critical; as opposed to rewarding people for their memory skills or their ability to gain a top grade because they complied with the exact rigours of a particular course.

It’s well documented (by people such as Professor Mitra and Sir Ken Robinson) that our education systems are rooted in the age of industrial revolution. Successive governments the world over have failed to modernise matters and it’s little wonder that young people are not being properly prepared for work. But economist Tim Harford would probably argue that it’s the maverick teachers who understand the importance of uncertainty and thus can be the catalyst for fundamental change. The challenge (if things are to really happen) is to make today’s ‘maverick’ tomorrow’s ‘mainstream’.

Entrepreneurship empathy

The Loughborough students I met at the awards evening were all experiencing different levels of risk and uncertainty at the start of their entrepreneurial journey. However, with all whom I spoke I detected a zeal for fresh thinking and a desire to seize new opportunities and create change.

My guest speaking ‘brief’ was to share my experience of starting and growing businesses. However, I felt that in order to empathise and hopefully connect with the audience I had to do more than simply offer a few stories. It was important for me to ‘go back’ and feel the uncertainty of their experience so I could speak from the heart and recall that ‘sensory cocktail’  of being excited and scared in the very same moment.

Whilst I planned what I wanted to say, more time was spent considering a wider context for the presentation in order to enhance the opportunity of identifying with the audience.  To show my appreciation for their chosen route in life and the importance of uncertainty being embraced, I chose to hitchhike the 100+ miles to the event.

Hitchhiking to Loughborough. Embracing the importance of uncertainty
Hitchhiking to Loughborough. Embracing the importance of uncertainty

One mad-keen fisherman, a Welsh wagon driver and a woman who rescued me from a long wait on the M18 and I was at Junction 23 of the M1. With sufficient time to spare I even walked the remaining 2.5 miles into Loughborough. The hitch back to Yorkshire the following day was more straightforward.

Critically, the sense of achievement, overcoming of odds, meeting new people, being self reliant and operating within a framework of uncertainty will stay in my memory for decades. By contrast and example, the train journey from Aberdeen to York the previous week will soon be forgotten.

Firing the emotional neurons

For me, entrepreneurship is best considered not so much a subject but a suite of feelings surrounding a particular issue. And these feelings are typically generated when we understand the importance of uncertainty and where such a mindset can take us. Critically, when this paradigm is allowed to thrive in an educational environment our emotions fire up (hope, wonder, surprise, confidence, frustration and disappointment etc.). As a result we become far more stimulated and alert both as students and teachers.

So thank you to everyone at Loughborough University for organising and participating in a great celebration of entrepreneurial achievement. Offers for me to hitchhike to other events have already been received and I am eager to take up the challenges. However, please be aware that it could all go horribly wrong…

Key Learning Points: I need to follow the theme of this article and break away from the traditional, expected three-line ‘KLP’ structure that has been offered in all previous posts.

To help people learn about their entrepreneurial talent and enable them to contribute solutions to local, national and international problems we need to empathise with them and facilitate thinking. To do this we need to embrace the importance of uncertainty and create circumstances that allow enterprising minds to thrive. As Sir Ken Robinson says when quoting Abraham Lincoln’s speech from December 1862:

“The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present. The occasion is piled high with difficulty and we must rise with the occasion. As our case is new so we must think anew and act anew.”

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