Diving into unpredictability

My previous essay on the topic of unpredictability generated a few insightful comments from my colleagues and friends. One of them led to this vignette.

It is very tempting to imagine that some people are just generally less susceptible to the discomfort of unpredictability than others. It might even feel like coming up with a way to gauge one’s ability to thrive in unpredictable situations would be a useful tool.

My intuition is that this stance needs a bit more nuance. As humans, we all abhor unpredictability. We rarely actually “thrive” in it, at least over the long run. The metaphor that comes to mind is diving.

Some people are great divers. They can spend a significant amount of time under water. They can go deep and explore the parts of the seabed inaccessible to anyone  else. At the same time, nobody would claim that great divers can actually live in the depths of the sea. We all need to come up for air.

In this metaphor, unpredictability is water. If we stay in it for too long, we drown. I see the desire for predictability – or homeostasis – as a gravity-like force that animates all of us. It isn’t something we can completely detach from – though stoics and buddhists try. Just like air that we need to breathe, predictability is something that is essential for nourishing our minds. Our minds are predictive systems. Unpredictability is anti-mind.

Great divers – those who can endure unpredictability better than others – are those who invest generously into techniques and strategies that enable them to stay in the deep longer and even enjoy it. However, prolonged exposure to it will still take the toll, and the need to come up for air will always win over.

Diving into predictability is hard work. Just like with any good diver, if they are making it look effortless, we can bet that a lot of effort was put in before. And just like with any good diver, the “true pirates” who appear as thriving in unpredictability are nearly always those with the decades of practice, with all the blood, sweat, tears, and scars such a practice entails. One of the foundational elements of this practice is finding a way back to the fresh air of a predictable environment.

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