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04 Nov 2020

The metaphor for uncertainty: the goblet of fire and the russian roulette

tl;dr for many our mental models around uncertainty are often thinking more in term of a binary ouput, like being exposed or not ; and this representation is rather weak to to address repeated exposure to uncertainty.

I think that most people have a rule based vision of knowledge. Where rules sound like this if you do X, you get Y. Learning and thinking in such rules is rather straight forward. Unfortunately the world is not binary and not as deterministic as one might expect. So in reality it is more looking like if you do X, you may get Y, but it makes learning and decision-making a lot harder.

Yet for many topics, uncertainty cannot be ignored. Covid-19 asked a lot of questions that cannot be replied to binarily. We realize it pretty quickly as soon as we have to go out to buy groceries ; it is a necessary form of exposure and suddenly we cannot close our eyes really strong and think “I take zero risk”.

We approach a lot of complex topic through metaphors, and here the metaphor is not right. We think about exposure as a Hufflepuff student throwing their name in the Goblet of Fire.

One of the family members gets the disease and, we live with them, we have been exposed, we cannot segregate in a home. Dumbledore can ask calmy as much as he wants ; our name is in the Goblet of Fire, it is too late.

Recurring uncertainty should be perceived differently. I was looking for a more joyful image, but I am thinking about a Russian roulette. Maybe a paintball based Russian roulette revolver would be a bit less dramatic. The fact that you have played one round, is not a reason to play another round.

Similarly, uncertainty is not only about the negatively perceived risks, it also applies to opportunities. If you are trying to hire a great profile for your team maybe you want to click that gun again, that is, repeat your hiring process in spite of previous failures.

One of my friend thought about the radioctivity exposure, we all get a little everyday, but it is the cumulated amount of exposure that builds up the risk.

The Russian roulette metaphor also opens to another uncomfortable thought.

The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result.

Often attributed to Einstein, this maxim is not compatible with uncertainty at all.

You can be the best poker player in the world having the best game of your life and lose a round, even the whole game. Should it trigger you to change your strategy?

After all, you lost? But in a game with a lot of randomness, it is always a possibility. Poker players call it being result oriented. A strategy should be judged ignoring the end result. Our actions have to be scored within the context at the moment of decisions.

The fact that the roulette triggered or not a bullet should not by itself alter our judgment. We should rather think on whether or not we estimated properly the amount of bullet in the gun and was the potential reward worth the risk.

Further readings around the topic of uncertainty could be:

  • You Are Not a Lottery Ticket by Peter Thiel, included in his book Zero to One
  • The Black Swan from Nassim Nicholas Taleb

Fräntz Miccoli

This blog is wrapping my ideas and opinions about innovation and entrepreneurship.

Since a bit of time now, I am the happy cofounder, COO & CTO of Nexvia.

Ideas expressed are here to be challenged.

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