I’ve been reading a lot recently about the fundamental unknowability of the universe. I’d like to include a tip or two in my book on the topic, but truly, I’m at a loss. So I’m turning to you, in the hopes you can share some ideas.

When we’re doing something we’ve done before, or trying to do the same thing others have done before, we have many tools: we can set goals, we can break the goals down into subtasks, we can do research, look at statistics and trends, and try to predict the future. This is the thrust of our education (MBA education, at least), and is generally accepted wisdom.

Some things in the world are risky. They’re unknown. For example, should I accept the job offer from company X? With some careful framing of the question, a few phone calls, and some due diligence, I can at least get a good idea of what it might be like to work for company X. 

Other things in the world are uncertain. They are fundamentally unknowable. Either they’re completely new so the human race lacks the past experience to know them, or the outcomes are so dependent on so many different things that for all intents and purposes, they’re unknowable. Some unknowables: (in 2003) Will the iPod catch on in the marketplace? Will my current job lead me to the next career step I want? Will global warming cause serious problems for the human race? What will I be doing in my life five years from now?

We sometimes mistake the uncertain/unknowable for the risky/unknown. We believe that saving for retirement is a good thing and we invest using prudent risk models, which is essentially believing that economic future is risky and unknown, but we can control the risk (and thus, it’s knowable to some degree). Then the economy collapses the very year a person retires, and it turns out that while certain market aspects were unknown, the actual result of “saving for retirement” (which must include consideration of the market conditions at the time of retirement) turns out to be unknowable and uncertain.

How do you approach the unknowable in your life? Do you try to plan? Do you get scared and avoid it as best you can? Do you throw yourself into the future with wild abandon?

What are some of the things you believe about how predictable and controllable your life is, and how your approach to life differs (or doesn’t) for the known, the knowable, and the unknowable?

What’s your approach to the unknown and unkn…

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