Whether you’re searching for courage to start a new project, change careers, launch a business, develop an idea, or reinvent yourself after a disappointment or life change, you will face uncertainty—that ambiguous and uncomfortable state that often makes us feel confused, anxious, and afraid to act. Though these moments are difficult, they offer opportunities for personal growth, innovation, and creativity.
In The Upside of Uncertainty, INSEAD professor Nathan Furr and entrepreneur Susannah Harmon Furr provide a sweeping guide to embracing uncertainty and transforming it into a force for good. Drawing from hundreds of interviews, along with pioneering research in psychology, innovation, and behavioural economics, Nathan and Susannah provide dozens of tools—including mental models, techniques, and reflections—for seeing the upside of uncertainty, developing a vision for what to do next, and opening ourselves up to new possibilities.
In our fast-paced, ever-changing world, uncertainty is on the rise. We face it every day. But few of us have been taught the techniques to navigate it well. In this interview, I speak to Nathan & Susannah Furr about the importance of uncertainty, why we must embrace it, and how understanding uncertainty can dramatically improve our lives.
Q: Why do you think it’s important that we reframe uncertainty?
[Nathan Furr]: Uncertainty has to do with the genesis of the book in the first place, which is for the last 20 years, I’ve been interviewing innovators. We interviewed them because they did something new – they came up with a new concept – they created a breakthrough – they created a new business or a new way of doing things or solving an important problem. To do any of that, they all had to first face uncertainty. You cannot get a breakthrough, you cannot get a change nor a transformation unless you are willing to take that risk by stepping into the unknown and for me, that was fascinating because I struggle with uncertainty like everybody else. I’m afraid of it. Therefore, I became curious because if getting the possibility requires going through uncertainty, they are two sides of the same coin, then could we get better at facing uncertainty and therefore get better at either accessing that possibility or feeling less stressed when it’s happening to us. That really is the genesis of it.
[Susannah Furr]: Reframing is the most critical piece in all these tools because we are wired to be afraid of uncertainty – it automatically hits us as instinctively wrong, like avoid this at all costs.
[Nathan Furr]: Reframing is a very old and foundational principle that has been well-established in the behavioural economics and psychology literature, which is principally that we are wired to be afraid of loss and gain thinking. For example, the famous experiments, Kahneman, Tversky. To oversimplify it, it is basically if you offer people two treatments for a disease, one with a 5% failure and the other with a 95% chance of success, we all want the 95% chance of success. All want the gain – but that is the dilemma – uncertainty registers as I might lose, if we could reframe it in terms of that possibility that’s hidden on the other side of the coin then we would be able to see it in new ways and be less anxious in the face of it.
[Susannah Furr]: An interesting factor about the way we hope we are talking about uncertainty is that instead of even needing to win because it is this loss versus gain, expanding what that gain could be….what are all the possibilities out there that I’m just not even looking at because I’ve been wired to be the best, be number one, make my life look like this, go to this school – get married at this age and have this many kids and be this weight and etcetera – that are just so finite and forced.
Q: How have the most successful people in the world adapted themselves to risk and uncertainty?
[Nathan Furr]: One of my other co-authors, he is an applied neuroscientist, he likes to say, ‘everything in our lives is a function of genes, experience and learning’. We should acknowledge that people do come wired differently in this world. There are some very strong bases in research in fields like ambiguity, tolerance, uncertainty, avoidance and resilience that suggest this can be learnt.
The big thing we learnt from our interviews is that what these innovators have figured out is that fundamental secret – they have all taken risks, some of them have worked out, some of them haven’t, but they realise this is the only way to get to it.
One of my favourite interviews was with a gentleman, David Hyatt, who created several retail clothing brands. The most recent was in the city of Cardigan, which was once the jeans manufacturing headquarters of the U.K. That industry failed there and fled overseas. And then he goes to restart the jeans industry in that same environment. That adds some uncertainty. When we talked to him, he was very clear. He’s like, ‘listen, what I’ve learnt is you can only do your best work when you’re at the frontier.’
We asked what he frames uncertainty as. Is it framed as a big risk? As scary? ‘No’, he says. ‘This is the space where I’m going to do my best work. Whether I succeed or fail, I am going to be the most creative, the most engaged, the most inspired when I’m at that edge’, and that, I would say, is just an example of what we saw repeatedly.
[Susannah Furr]: …. he was so motivated, ‘Could I do this and give people their jobs back?’ and that was the inspiring element, is he knew all these what he calls grandmasters who were still living around there, who had that know-how and that brilliance. I think that is what’s cool, too, is these people might still feel nervous, like is this going to work? but they are doing it for these reasons that are so integral and that inspires them to be able to do it.
For example Bob Sutton, Nathan’s professor at Stanford, grew up in an entrepreneurial setting in the Bay Area with entrepreneurial parents and I do think it helps when you’ve been around people like that and that has helped us. Since we started really living these tools, we are now better at uncertainty than we were even two years ago. I think it is something that people need to feel good about, just starting small experiments with uncertainty and building that comfort level with it… you can’t go back to believing that it’s too risky, you’ve got to keep going.
Q: How do values, goals and passions fit into our understanding of uncertainty?
[Nathan Furr]: In the upside of uncertainty, we describe over 30 plus tools to navigate the uncertainty in the world around us. Either the uncertainty you choose, when you start something new, or when it happens to us, like a pandemic, that is a lot of tools to work with. How do we organise those? We use this metaphor of a first aid cross for uncertainty, with four arms. We talked a little bit about the first arm, which is reframing the uncertainty from a source of loss to potential gain. Then there is priming or preparing for it. There is doing or acting, and then there is sustaining yourself. Your question made me think right away of one of the tools in the ‘do’ section. Action is one of the very best ways to resolve the unknown.
Action under uncertainty where you are guaranteed to not get it right, but still, can you set yourself up so you can’t fail. That is the kind of quirky thing that we found is there is a way to do that. It has to do with your values, and we call it values over goals.
It was well said in one of our interviews by David Heinemeier Hansson (a Danish programmer and the creator of the popular Ruby on Rails web development framework). He is one of the legends of the entrepreneurial world. If you use apps in your phone, you are using items built on his foundations.
He said, ‘if you are doing something new, let’s say creating a new business, it does not happen because you set a goal to say hit $10 million. Of course, my American circuits are like shouting out like ‘What do you mean, goals? Everything runs by goals,’ but his point was, you don’t control whether the market is going to accept what you are doing or not. You could spend all your time worrying about it. That will create a lot of anxiety and you’ll shy away from the uncertainty as a result. But instead, the alternative is to ask, how do I achieve my values? For him, that is writing great software, treating his employees well, and working ethically with the marketplace. He was very clear – if I spend two years, a couple of million dollars building this product and it doesn’t work, I will still succeed if I achieve my values.
When we started this book, a decade before the Covid-19 – when the pandemic hits, what happens? Every thought leader guru out there is grounded, thinking about uncertainty, and talking about it. I see all these articles popping up and I am thinking, it’s all over it’. Susannah said, ‘What are you talking about?’ Use the tools. What’s your value?
We then wrote this book and acted according to our values, which was how do we make these ideas as accessible as possible to our best friends so they can use it? Susannah is better at uncertainty than I am. We will do our best work and that will be good enough. We will succeed regardless of whether some other bigger thought leader out there with a bigger megaphone publishes our book. She was right and again; the anxiety fell off my shoulders as a result.
[Susannah Furr]: Sometimes when we are too focused on just checking the boxes of our job description or our role as a parent, we are missing out on those more renewing aspects that come when we do it with more heart and soul. I would say values can get you there when you’re really aligned.
Q: How can embracing uncertainty help us avoid burnout?
[Susannah Furr]: When we talk about burnout, I don’t remember any of the interviews really speaking to that because I think a lot of times in the innovation world, they are just go, go, go until the thing [burn out] hits. Even if they are burnt out, the attitude is we were sleeping under our desks and we were never seeing our families.
Really and truly, burnout feels to me like it comes when we are not having enough uncertainty. We are not really taking our own steps towards why. Why am I feeling burnt out? What about this has gotten old? Because clearly at some point it was either challenging or it was more important or you really felt like, no, I need to do this. Or you were excited about that role, and it is just become limp or frustrating or boring.
We really talk about reverse insurance as another reframing tool, but how do you add uncertainty? How do you get on the frontier so that even a boring job can become renewed again by kind of upping whether it’s your heart or your mind, but the part of you that will be challenged in a way that feels like I’m alive, I’m alive again. Uncertainty actually does put us on the edge of our seats in a way but certain situations don’t. Certainty is like, I know exactly how this day is going to go.
I know what my boss is going to say, I even know what they are going to wear – know what I’m going to wear – it literally can be these small, teeny things, waking ourselves up to what else is possible. Whether it’s we need to do a new exercise thing, we need to start meeting an old friend who used to make us laugh. These things, injecting some life and spunk is really about a lot of times injecting more uncertainty.
[Nathan Furr]: It is important to separate. Where is the burnout coming from? A lot of times it’s from the repeated routine, in which case this advice to inject some uncertainty is important. You hinted at maybe a second kind of burnout, when there is too much uncertainty in what you are doing – there we would recommend a tool from the prime section we called Uncertainty Balancers, which is to acknowledge that no person has an infinite capacity for uncertainty.
When we interviewed some of these super innovators, they would say, ‘I love uncertainty’, or ‘I eat uncertainty for breakfast’, you can walk away feeling like really intimidated.
When we dug down deep, what we find is they balance out that uncertainty in their lives with these kinds of islands of certainty. They will fly on the same plane, the same sea, go in the same hotel room, in the same hotel every time, carry their breakfast with them, wear the same clothes, marry their high school sweetheart, and have friends from junior high. I mean, just like incredibly stable things. And when you push them, they’ll acknowledge that.
I would say if your situation is one where it’s just such a radical firefight, craziness at work and that’s what’s burning you out, you might need to create some uncertainty balancers in that case to bring down the heat you are feeling.
Q: What have you learned about leaps of faith?
[Nathan Furr]: It is one of the great myths of entrepreneurship and of any kind of breakthrough, it is this kind of this happens overnight. In reality, you dig down, you see that the best way to make progress is to break something down into really small steps and basically just run a bunch of experiments.
That is the way people make progress.
For example, Pokemon Go had this incredible overnight success. We wrote about that because they got 500 million downloads in two months, but it took 20 years to get to that point and it was a series of all these different projects and experiments.
During my PhD at Stanford, our group did some research asking the question – do you have to do everything all at once or can you focus on maybe the most important thing, kind of use backstops for the rest? It is very clear in a matched case comparison study that it is better to focus on the most important things for a period, learn, get it right, and then shuffle that to the back burner and tackle the next most important thing. Analogous to how a great chef prepares a meal. They don’t cook the chicken, let it go cold, and then cook the carrots. Nor do they try to do everything at once because then they burn it. They shuffle the pots and keep moving.
There is this great empirical research that shows that hybrid entrepreneurs are the most successful. A hybrid entrepreneur is somebody who keeps their job, is paying their bill while they experiment and why are they more successful? It is because they have more time to figure out what works, and they are less stressed. So many of us do not take action on something we care about because we think, Oh, I got to go all in. I got to do it all at once and it is just so overwhelming when instead you could just say, Well, what’s the thing I could do this week or this month? A little experiment and just get my feet wet and I would say that is the way forward.
Q: How can we adapt to the wider uncertainties in life?
[Susannah Furr]: Sometimes I even worry that the book was too personal because to me there is so much meant at an individual level. When we teach this, we do teach using these business cases but as the human experience of uncertainty, because I do believe that whenever we’re experiencing uncertainty, even if it’s a career related scenario, it is hitting us in those amygdala, fight or flight regions of our brain.
For all these wider, deeply unsettling cases of scenario in our world, I would say these tools hold true in terms of at least the broader categories of there are moments when we need to reframe what’s happening.
We have teenagers in their twenties, and they have a different outlook on the world than when we were growing up. It is very different and sometimes it’s disheartening for us because we want them to be more optimist, but they are really looking at things that we did not think about at all. It’s been really cool to talk about some of these tools in the light of climate change or with this war right now, what can we do? As a lot of times with these bigger things that are out there, we feel helpless.
For example in California during the COVID pandemic, people went and bought guns and it’s just escalating because there is so much distress and political issues going on in the U.S. How do we use these tools to calm down ourselves? Hence that would be a sustained issue. Also, we have hope that our change, our ability to navigate it and to not go to that flight place will be massively important in our local communities and even just in our families, of standing up to our kids or our spouses and saying, you know what.. we can do this.
[Nathan Furr]: When the COVID pandemic hit, all of my income disappeared. I do teaching and speaking. It was gone almost instantly and we have a mortgage to pay, kids at university and it was obviously a super stressful time. What do we tend to do in those situations? We tend to lock on to a very shadowy image of what is the worst case that is going to happen to us now we worry about it. What do innovators do differently? They learn to think instead of binary.
Worst case, everything’s okay in terms of multiple possibilities, to even assign a probability to that. Being bankrupt is one, but there’s a lot of other possibilities and what’s really the probability I’m going to go bankrupt. Lastly, to unpack that worst case scenario and really walk it through to the end. What if I do go bankrupt – if my university fails, I lose my job, I lose everything – I saw some skills, I could recover. We could move out to the countryside and have a beautiful life. Suddenly, at the end of walking to that worst case scenario, you even might get to the point where you say, maybe that’s even a better life is to not have all the stress and pressure.
Q: Why did you decide to write this book?
[Nathan Furr]: I have a deep belief and all of my work is really around this belief that uncertainty requires different tools to navigate well and that it’s been increasing and the world around us for decades.
I’ve written about this for organisations and in terms of how we give good ideas and testing ideas, but really core was this question of how does one person get better at that – how do I as an individual get better at that?
I try to remember for myself and then I hope people will remember is a very simple question. We use this word transilience to illustrate it. Transilient is a word that means leaping from one state to another – a moment of phase shift. Imagine when water boils and it becomes steam, it is almost like this magical transformation. In a manner when we encounter uncertainty.
I know everybody felt this uncertainty when they were stuck, when they felt like all they could see was the challenge and the obstacles, and then suddenly they see the possibility. Your whole mindset shifts, and it is so beautiful and therefore my hope for everybody who reads the book, and my hope for myself is – How do I have that moment when uncertainty hits me? How do I flip it and see the possibility?
[Susannah Furr]: I would just add that originally when Nathan was doing interviews back as a PhD student, I was not around for those. It was more of a conversation as a couple that we just loved. We really always were very intentional about what lives do we want to live? Where are the role models? We didn’t really find them in our circle, and so we were always looking to history or literature or just anyone that could kind of inspire us to really make our lives our own. When I decided to join, it really came out of this feeling that we would write a better book if we linked up, kind of the places we were coming from.
I have been an entrepreneur in a very small part, I haven’t been investing millions of dollars. I did a clothing line, and I did a design firm and right now I’m doing this. Now I’m turning my attention to the soil and I’m creating what I’m calling a hope accelerator, I envision it as a place where people could come and learn many different things. In everything I did, it really was this feeling of this is going to be truly like, I’m going to find joy and meaning and bliss even, in this thing.
It’s going to be weird at first and awkward and I’m going to have to go to New York and I’m a mother of young kids and Nathan’s doing his PhD, we have no money for this , but I’m going to go and I’m going to set up the fabric thing with the Liberty Rep who’s going to be there for one day.
I was doing all these unusual things and sometimes you don’t know why you’re doing it other than that drive – that alignment of either the passion or just the value so when I joined the book, it became a different book. It really was less for managers and more for human beings. The human being inside the manager and ultimately on this side of having written it, we see now how much our world actually needs more of this. I would say, and this is kind of guru- ish, but there’s yin and yang, like the masculine and feminine coming together, and sometimes that is going to be I might be more masculine, I might be the one that is coming in and saying, this is how it has to be.
I think our world is way too polarised in not the good way. We need to come together and have people working on things. I wish more couples would work together because it was hard. It was very hard. We were not used to that but so much growth came out of this.