Want to Improve Your Career? Become an Uncertainty Killer

There’s lots of great career advice out there.

Follow your passion. Find a mentor. Expand your network.

Unfortunately, advice like this tends to be too abstract to be useful most of the time. For example, let’s say you find a mentor. How do you know if they are the right mentor? You don’t. The same can be said for lots of other career advice out there. Sometimes it’s just too fuzzy to be helpful.

To counteract this, I want to provide you with a singular concrete idea that you can use in your career right away. More importantly, this idea will apply to anyone who works with other people. Whether you have a boss to support, clients to impress, or individuals to manage, this specific advice will work wonders for you and your career. What is it?

Reduce uncertainty for others as much as you can.

Become an uncertainty killer. That’s it.

I guarantee that if you can make other peoples’ lives more certain, they will sing your praises. You will build trust at every turn and create allies wherever you go. People may even publicly call you “a machine” and impart positive attributes to you that you may not actually have.

Why does this work? Because people hate uncertainty. And there’s overwhelming evidence to demonstrate this.

For example, a University College of London study found that people were far more stressed when there was a chance of getting an electrical shock than when they knew one was coming with confidence. Robert Sapolsky relates a similar finding in Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers:

During the onset of the Nazi blitzkrieg bombings of England, London was hit every night like clockwork. In the suburbs the bombings were far more sporadic, occurring perhaps once a week. Fewer stressors, but much less predictability. There was a significant increase in the incidence of ulcers during that time. Who developed more ulcers? The suburban population.

Both of these stories illustrate how the uncertainty around a stressor can cause more harm than the stressor itself. This is why reducing uncertainty creates so much value for people. As Rory Sutherland stated in Alchemy:

The single best investment ever made by the London Underground in terms of increasing passenger satisfaction was not to do with money spent on faster, more frequent trains – it was the addition of dot matrix displays on platforms to inform travelers of the time outstanding before the next train arrived.

Why do you think companies like Uber, Amazon, and McDonald’s have so many people that use their services? Because they all reduce uncertainty in their given markets. Uber reduces the uncertainty around finding a ride, Amazon reduces the uncertainty around getting a package, and McDonald’s reduces the uncertainty around how their food will taste. You may not like any of these products/services, but they are all extremely certain in their delivery.

You could make the same argument for Dominos and its now famous pizza tracker (an uncertainty killer of the highest degree):

But instead of talking about reducing uncertainty in abstract terms, let’s look at a real world example of how you can minimize uncertainty in your career.

Reducing Uncertainty in Practice

Imagine it’s Monday morning and your boss comes to you and asks you to do a project that they want finished during the week. After briefly discussing the details you get to work. Two days later (on Wednesday) you get an email from your boss saying, “Have you finished the project that we discussed on Monday yet?”

Assuming you haven’t finished it, there are basically three ways you can respond to their email:

(1) Reply, “Not yet.”

(2) Reply, “Not yet, but it will be finished by [x].”

(3) Don’t reply at all.

Obviously (3) is the worst thing you can do, but I’d argue that (1) isn’t all that much better. Both response (1) and (3) provide no information to your boss about the status of the project. They are still just as clueless following your response as they were before they asked you the question. Their uncertainty hasn’t been reduced at all.

Given this, response (2) is the best response, right? You provide the immediate answer and include a time estimate about when the project should be finished.

Nope. This was a trick question. The problem is that response (2) is also a failure because your boss never should have had to ask about the status of the project in the first place. The fact that they asked means that they felt uncertain. It means that you were not providing them with enough information to make them feel at ease.

If you had provided them with a timely update, then they wouldn’t have needed to spend the time to ask you. And with time being the biggest constraint for most people, the ability to free up more of your boss’s time and mental energy is worth its weight in gold. This doesn’t imply that you need to provide updates every 10 minutes. However, it does imply that you should find a cadence that makes them more certain about working with you.

This is what I mean by reducing uncertainty. You have to make sure that information is flowing in a way so that you become a trusted resource wherever you go. The more consistently you do this, the less time and energy others will spend worrying about you and your ability to get things done.

Don’t just do this with your boss either. Do it with everyone you work with. Practice reducing uncertainty so that it becomes second nature to you. Practice it until you become an uncertainty killer. Then watch what happens.

Why Reducing Uncertainty Matters For Your Finances

Though Of Dollars And Data is a personal finance/investing blog, I know empirically that building wealth is highly correlated with your income. Therefore, when I write an article on enhancing your career (and increasing your income), it is far more likely to improve your financial situation than when I write about an investment related topic. This is why reducing uncertainty matters so much for your finances.

Because we can’t control what happens in markets. Reducing uncertainty in this realm is a very difficult task. Those that claim otherwise are what I like to call “liars” (or Jim Simons).

But, we can control what actions we take each and every day in our careers. We can control how we communicate. And we can control how we work with others. Of all the things I know, of this I am quite certain.

Thank you for reading!

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This is post 254. Any code I have related to this post can be found here with the same numbering: https://github.com/nmaggiulli/of-dollars-and-data


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