How we deal with ambiguity is crucial to our success

Two days ago marked the 110th anniversary of a 7.8 earthquake that struck northern California. 3000 people died. 80% of San Francisco was destroyed due to the quake and fires that followed. Today, it still remains one of the worst natural disasters in US history.

But something strange happened following the disaster. People got married. Like crazy.

Between April 18 and May 18, 1906, more couples were married than any other same length period of time in San Francisco. 180 couples were married in the first 10 days after the earthquake — 4 times the normal rate.

According to the Oakland Tribune, even though City Hall was a disaster zone, they saw: Young couples scrambling about among the ruins trying to find where marriage licenses were issued.


On Oct. 30, 1974, two fighters entered a boxing ring in Zaire, Africa. The challenger was 34 years old and had been a great fighter in his day, but now was past his prime. He’d been out of boxing from 1967–1970, and his hands were in pain from years and years of punishment. In his own words:

the pain was almost unbearable. Even to be hit on the hands by sparring partners when blocking blows was torture. At first it was only the right hand, but then both hands.

Not to mention, he was fighting the current champion who was 7 years younger, had never lost a fight, knocked out 37 of his 40 opponents, and often accomplished the feat brutally in 4 rounds or less.

You might not know the fight unless you follow boxing, but you definitely know the fighters:

Muhammad Ali vs. George Foreman

Ali was the older fighter and was a big underdog in this battle. Few people thought Ali would win. No one thought he would win from a knockout.

But Ali knocked Foreman out and won the fight.

How did Ali manage to do what so many said was impossible?

The earthquake above is just one of many stories in Nonsense: The Power of Not Knowing, a recent book by Jamie Holmes. The book explores that uncomfortable but incredibly powerful place in our decision making: ambiguity. How we deal with uncertainty is most often a key to how we obtain success.

Jamie studies how humans make poor decisions as they rush to cling to something when put into a place of uncertainty. Even when the uncertainty and stress is something unrelated.

When these poor folks lost their homes and lives in San Francisco, they were enveloped in a need for some kind of closure or certainty in their lives. Many chose to get married.

What does this have to do with Foreman and Ali?


Foreman says in his memoir:

I figured that I would chew him up in a matter of seconds. I went after him with a vengeance, throwing punches in every direction, assuming I’d knock the boy out with one punch. Maybe I would have, if any of my punches would have landed.

And if you watch some of the highlights of the fight, you’ll see Foreman doing exactly that.

Just teeing up on Ali over and over.

But that quote above from Foreman was actually about his very first fight when he was a teenager. This wasn’t about his Ali fight at all, but it might as well have been.

In the boxing ring with Ali, in a place of extreme uncertainty and stress, Foreman clung to his tried and true style of boxing: trying to “knock the boy out in one punch”.

Because it had worked. In Foreman’s previous fight, he knocked down his opponent 6 times in just 2 rounds before the fight was stopped. Foreman hadn’t gone past the 4th round in years because of how fast he dropped his opponents.

Contrast that with Ali’s strategy for the fight which was to “stay off the ropes” and “DANCE! DANCE, CHAMP! DANCE!”. Ali was famous for his ability to dance around his opponents and sting them over and over with jabs.

Except it wasn’t working against Foreman. Ali could already tell in the first round his strategy was going to end up with him losing:

Before the end of the round I know I’ve got to change my plans. Sadler and Archie have drilled George too well. He does his job like a robot, but he does it well. I’m famous for being hard to hit in the first rounds, but no fighter can last fifteen if he has to take six steps to his opponent’s three.

So Ali changed his strategy by doing the complete opposite of what he planned. He went to the ropes. He went to the corner. And he hung on those ropes giving himself a rest, while Foreman just continued his original game plan of pounding on Ali.

And this new plan worked. The fight titled “Rumble in the Jungle” is now also known as the “rope-a-dope” fight — Foreman for being the dope. While Ali rested on the ropes, and took shot after shot from Foreman, absorbing many of the punches to his arms or leaning away from them entirely, Foreman exhausted himself.

At the end of round 7 there’s a funny scene of Foreman almost trying to take a nap on Ali’s glove.

Foreman was knocked out in round 8.

In another part of his book, Jamie highlights the research of Dean Simonton. Dean is a Professor of Psychology at UC-Davis and has spent decades researching the origins of creativity and genius. He was curious why there are periods of explosion in creativity in our history. As he explored, he looked at Japan. And he found strong correlations between bursts of creative accomplishment and periods where there was a great amount of outside influence from immigrants and foreigners.

The more diverse Japan got, the more creative it got.

Dean also explored how things like diversity and openness to new experiences change individuals. Openness to experience is one of those Big 5 personality traits that psychologists segment the world with.

Dean studied all the presidents of the United States, taking their biographies, combining them with analysis from historians, and then removing names from the dataset to anonymize the influence those names had on the research. What he found was striking.

Turns out Openness to experience predicts presidential success better than any other personality trait.

In other words, as we diversify ourselves with outside experience, we get a whole lot better at life.

Foreman said of his trainer, Dick Sadler, “Every round he was telling me to attack, attack, attack. He was slapping my leg in the corner, urging me to get him, telling me I had Ali hurt. Not once did he ask me to stop and let Ali bring the fight to me.”

That’s interesting because that advice sounds exactly like the way Foreman enjoyed to fight. It’s as if he was his own cornerman.

Contrast that with the type of person Ali would get advice from. Prior to the Foreman fight, Ali invited an ex-sparring partner of Foreman’s for an interview: Bossman Jones.

But the meeting wasn’t going to the team’s liking. Ali’s trainers didn’t think Bossman would make a loyal team member. So they asked: “If George and Muhammad were to fight tomorrow, who would you pick to win? Who’d you bet on?” Bossman said: “Ali’s jab ain’t what it used to be. Muhammad’s getting old… I bet on George.

Ali’s trainer was furious. He wanted Bossman thrown out of the gym. “Give this *&^%# his plane ticket back home. We don’t need this double agent.”

But Ali knew better than to surround himself with people that all saw things the same way. He knew he needed to surround himself with people he didn’t always agree with, and who had conflicting opinions.

As his team was about to kick Bossman out. Ali waved them off:

Wait a minute! Leave him alone! Angelo, get Bossman a ticket to Africa. I need him.

It’s this type of behavior that led Ali to changing his strategy in the middle of the fight.

Ali’s team actually did the same thing Foreman’s trainer did. They pleaded with Ali during the fight to stick with the original game plan of staying off the ropes.

But Ali, open to the diverse opinion around him, was comfortable disagreeing with advice when it didn’t make sense. Foreman wasn’t.

Arie Kruglanski is a Professor of Psychology at the University of Maryland whose research Jamie also includes in his book. Arie’s been researching how we deal with urgency and stress for many years. In one experiment, Arie found even an annoying, noisy computer printer in a room full of jurors made the jurors resistant to changing their opinions. As Jamie says:

Urgency makes for inflexible minds.

In order to combat that, we need to recognize our bias, and instead embrace the uncertainty and stress.

We need to take more punches.

Ali found himself in trouble already in the second round of his fight with Foreman.

A crowbar in George’s right hand crashes through my guard into my head, knocks me into the room of half-dream. My head vibrates like a tuning fork. Neon lights flash on and off. I tell myself: I must not get hit again. The tuning fork must stop vibrating. Only, I’ve been here before. I know about it… I don’t panic and run out.

Foreman was the noisy printer. And Ali knew he could get through it. He’d been here before. He knew he could embrace the pain, and continue on without making decisions to escape.

So Ali continued on — listening, adjusting, and planning. Finally in the 7th round, Ali could tell Foreman was exhausted to a point where Ali might have a chance.

He unleashed the remaining power he had saved up for that moment, and knocked Foreman down.

It was over.

We can learn a lot from Ali and the work Jamie provides. When we’re faced with stressful choices at times of uncertainty, we need to remind ourselves to be open to new experiences and embrace the pain; it won’t last, and many others have seen past it.

By doing that, we stand a chance at remaining flexible even when we feel the tug to find certainty, and hopefully, given all of life’s ambiguity, we’ll be ready to make better decisions.

P.S. If you have $10 to spare, you should donate it to the Red Cross as your good deed for the day. It’ll make you feel great and they could really use it. Just this week Japan and Ecuador have been hit with terrible earthquakes. Houston is reeling from flooding. And in general, the Red Cross is dealing with much more than it has in the past few years:

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