We face uncertainty daily – globally, professionally, fiscally, and personally - so I wanted to speak to an expert in the field of managing uncertainty. I connected with Rick Andrews who has over two decades of experience in improvisation and has worked with over 100 clients including Google, J.P. Morgan, Salesforce, and even the NFL, to name a few. He uses improv as a tool to make companies and teams work better. Here is an excerpt from our conversation I thought might be useful to those of us facing uncertainty at work, with our investments, or in any area of life. Enjoy the read!
ME: It was awesome to connect with you, Rick, and discover how much the skills you teach and the work I do intersect. None of us have a crystal ball to predict the future. We live in a world filled with ambiguity, so we can make certain assumptions, create a plan based on them and where we’d like to end up, but we must be able to course correct along the way. I find that this is true whether allocating one’s investment portfolio or building a business. How do you address the work of managing uncertainty with your clients?
RICK: Same! I am constantly discovering ways that core improv concepts can help us tackle problems across domains, from creativity and innovation to more effective listening and empathy, to the idea of managing uncertainty.
ME: Does it differ widely industry to industry, or do you find more universal commonalities across sectors?
RICK: I think there's two components to managing uncertainty that I see across domains. Reacting "well" to uncertainty involves a) accepting and embracing change and b) listening for cues so you can adapt to the new reality.
The classic mistake you see is "anchoring": holding on too tightly to your now-outdated notions about a situation. It's very clear on stage. Someone is going along, doing a great scene. "Wow, fun party!" they say. "Great turnout!" In their mind, they think they are at a birthday party. Then Person Two says something like, "Yeah, I can't believe Bill is finally retiring"
Ok, now we're not at a birthday party. Person One is now encountering uncertainty. A bad response is to be too anchored to the past, the reality you *thought* you were in. "Bill's not retiring; it's my birthday!" That's an indication that the person wasn't willing to drop their idea and adapt to the new reality. And now we're stuck denying or negotiating over what's true rather than moving forward together.
So instead, you embrace the change, and to do so you focus on listening. Instead of retreating into your head where your previous assumptions were, you need to take in outside information. What did that person say? How did they say it? What did I do, and what might that mean in this new context? What could be great about that?
In the example from above, with the context shifted, it's interesting now that Person One seems surprised by the turnout. Isn't that kind of fun? "Yeah, I mean Bill was a mean guy; I guess people are excited he's leaving!" By tolerating uncertainty and embracing change, we can open ourselves up to fruitful new possibilities.
You can apply that to most domains. "Listening" might be about paying closer attention to markets, or gleaning new customer insights, or focusing more on your patients' descriptions of their pain. Whatever your source of information is, reinvesting in that almost always provides the pathway to adjusting to uncertainty.
I'm curious if you've observed these anchoring/adjustment patterns as well?
I sometimes see this concept of anchoring, happen when working with clients on a financial plan and they behave from a mindset that is no longer reality. Even though they may have strengthened their financial position, they continue to operate from a place of scarcity. Young professionals who began their career in the arts and worked gig to gig, as I did for eight years after graduate school, sometimes still behave with the fear of “making the rent” even when they are now well established. Shifting to a mindset of abundance can sometimes feel counterintuitive, especially after living with such uncertainty. When we have a plan, we can feel confident that we have a direction in which we are headed and allow our mindset to shift. The direction may change, the goal itself may even change, but our action moving toward our goal in this current moment is our only true anchor.
This can be particularly daunting for folks approaching retirement. I have seen investors sometimes clutch onto a holding in their portfolio that doesn’t match their objectives or that may never perform how they hope, because they are holding out for that “Hail Mary,” that highly unlikely possibility that they see as the only way they won’t outlive their money. Some hold an investment for sentimental reasons, or because of pride, even if they continue to lose money as opposed to accepting the new reality and moving forward. In cases like this, to your point, they aren’t listening and adjusting.
I see this on stage at the theatre often. An actor having decided how the scene is going to go before it has even happened. There is no nuance, no subtlety to their performance. They aren’t truly acting. They are saying words and doing movements, void of any connection to the moment, based in their idea as to how they think the scene should go. By no means am I suggesting that acting on a data driven hypothesis about what one predicts could happen next in the markets is irresponsible. If anything, I am a proponent of identifying patterns and coupling what we know for a fact with tactics that would allow one to thoughtfully prepare for what they hope will occur without losing their shirt in the process. A revelatory performance on stage can give an audience everything they want, with brilliant subtleties along the way. The same can be said of a well-crafted financial plan. Keep in mind, everyone’s experience of a performance is unique, just as everyone’s goals are for their lives.
And surprises are surprises for a reason! They cannot be predicted, but we know for sure that something unexpected will happen. Life imitating art… or art imitating life? What do you think can we learn about ourselves when it comes to wealth, mindset, and how our status informs our behavior?
RICK: Definitely--uncertainty is cognitively challenging. It's frightening not knowing what's going to happen! That tends to increase people's reliance on things like anchoring. It's harder to let go of your preconceptions when the alternative seems murky. In improv, the solution is to listen, so you get more information. Sounds like it's the same for you: confronting the new reality with more information to make it easier to adjust.
You're right, surprises are surprising for a reason. One thing I notice that experienced improvisers do is: they don't know what the surprise will be, but they know things won't go exactly as expected. Great improvisers never retreat into their headspace with certainty about the future of the scene; they're constantly present.
I can imagine there are a lot of folks selling certainty; it certainly is a better message than, "Who knows!" But I am taken with the idea of helping people better manage uncertainty. Because to pretend there won't be uncertainty is at best ignorant, and at worse deceitful. But by helping make people more mentally prepared for uncertainty, we increase the likelihood they'll be able to adapt to the new realities when they come, regardless of what they are.
That's in many respects how I think about teaching/coaching: I'm not there to tell people how to do things, because they're the one making their own choices in a scene. I can't do it for them. Instead, I'm there to help make them better prepared for uncertainty so that when the time comes, they're better able to be in the moment and react.
ME: If there is one thing we know for sure, it’s that change is inevitable. Being present and mentally prepared to face the unknown, can help us manage what’s coming next with a bit more ease.
Well, thank you so much, Rick. Our conversation has inspired me to pick up a copy of Comfortable with Uncertainty by Pema Chödrön which speaks to living in the moment with our consciousness. I have recently become more interested in mindfulness teachings and meditation and these brief lessons on cultivating fearlessness and compassion are reflective and insightful.