The UP school is about encouraging people, including ourselves, to see possibility and go for it (instead of limiting ourselves when uncertainty looms large).
Uncertainty Possibility is a journey that happens on an individual level first before you can inspire and help others. Leaders, entrepreneurs, parents, neighbors...we all need tools to navigate uncertainty.
The UP school shares a method for navigating uncertainty through live workshops, recorded tutorials, and the Uncertainty Possibility book (forthcoming).
Nathan teaches complex concepts dynamically and is equally at home on stage in front of big crowds or writing frantically in a quiet corner.
Susannah prefers to sit down with both friends and strangers to figure out how to coax things to thrive. We both love ideas and come to them with different brains and styles so we cover the bases.
We envision a community of individuals sharing their personal experiences of transilience when they transformed uncertainty into possibility. We want to know what is helpful and what would be even more helpful.
We believe forums of collaboration and sharing are the only worthwhile ones.
We aren't experts but curious observers and know that you have a lot to teach us. Contact us with your feedback, good or bad, and we will try to implement it, as the UP project unfolds.
Why We Need You
How We Do It
Who We Help
Nathan is an Associate Professor of Strategy at INSEAD, where he teaches innovation and technology strategy. Nathan earned his PhD from the Stanford Technology Ventures Program at Stanford University and holds BA, MA and MBA degrees from Brigham Young University.
Nathan is also a recognised expert in innovation, entrepreneurship, and value creation, co-authoring Innovation Capital (Harvard Business Review Press, 2019), Leading Transformation, (Harvard Business School Press, 2018), The Innovator's Method (Harvard Business School Press, 2014) and Nail It then Scale It: The Entrepreneur’s Guide to Creating and Managing Breakthrough Innovation (NISI Institute, 2011). His articles appear in Harvard Business Review and Sloan Management Review. In addition, Nathan contributes to Forbes, Inc. and other magazines on issues of innovation, value creation, and technology strategy.
Susannah is a designer and art historian with a research focus on the Dutch Baroque period. She founded a women's clothing line inspired by her research of the intricate embroidery Dutch women found the time to painstakingly render on their otherwise prescribed uniforms-details often invisible to all but the wearer-and its significance in their daily lives.
Empowerment of individuals to be and live as their hearts dictate is her happiest thought. Mother to four incredibly dauntless kids, she sometimes gets requests that she be more of a tiger mom...but alas, the only thing she really values is earnest attempts to live true.
Stay tuned for The Earnest Project which finds and meets up with fascinating humans who have discovered a current outside the regular rat race, according to an inner sense of purpose and integrity and love of what they do....for its own sake.
you might want to get some snacks and settle in...
What is Uncertainty Possibility?
Uncertainy possibility is a personal and professional journey.
Standing on the top deck of the boat, as it cut through the darkness covering Puget Sound, I can still remember my friend, Fabrice’s proposal. Why not come teach at his university in France for a quarter? It seemed like a dream, as I peered into the night smothering the distant hills, a cluster of lights clinging to the shore like a holiday ornament reflected in the water. Before my heart could land after leaping so high at the thought, I heard the voice of my PhD advisor, warning me. Any distraction at this stage could be career suicide. Newly minted PhDs are advised to cut out every distraction in their life--teaching, personal, professional--if they want a shot at keeping their job.
With four children, massive student debts, and a broken-down house, I already had my share of distractions. I hadn’t finished my PhD when I took a job and left Stanford, a risky move that often produced that category of lifetime employment purgatory, “all-but dissertation.” Within a month after moving in, the water and sewer lines at the house collapsed, so that after an emergency repair, I spent mornings kneeling in the dirt trying to repair the torn sprinkler lines before racing into the office to wrangle a thorny dissertation dataset that refused to cooperate. When my dean knocked on my office door later that month, he apologetically explained that because of the financial crisis, the university had issued a hiring freeze. If I didn’t finish my dissertation by the end of the year, I would be fired. I was already on a reduced salary so that when we had a minor accident, I could only tape the torn bumper to the frame of the car. Later that month, my angst revealed itself when I pleaded to Susannah, “we can buy food, but nothing else. Nothing.”
The uncertainty, and the possibilities, of my friend’s proposal felt immense. But how often do you get offered a dream? So I told Fabrice maybe, which became yes after discussion with Susannah. A year later, two months into the Paris experiment felt like both victory and defeat. For two people who love history, literature, craft, art, and beauty, Paris is a dream. But as I had been warned, my research productivity slowed to a trickle. I remember very clearly the moment I stood shivering in the November mist blanketing the Fontainebleau chateau gardens, just south of Paris, unable to see how lucky I was to be in France. I could only see how far I had fallen from my dreams as a PhD student. Money was so tight that my kids split crepes and we had a budget line item for the two euro entrance fees to the Luxembourg garden playground. I was painfully aware that I stood just a few hundred meters away from INSEAD, one of the most renowned business schools in the world, but that they didn’t even know I existed, and would never know, as my career slipped into oblivion. From the narrow lens of the story I told myself that day, it appeared that the opportunities I had worked so hard to be eligible for had vanished into the fog surrounding us.
This conclusion is particularly ironic given that I study uncertainty and possibility. At that time, I was more narrowly focused on how people and companies innovate and change. It is a topic that fascinates me, partly because it is hard for me, having grown up in a small town and liking familiar routines. But during my time at Stanford I started studying how entrepreneurs learn to see the world in new ways, and together, Susannah and I had started to apply some of their ways of thinking to our lives. Perhaps it had been hearing first-hand how Jeff Bezos described his decision to leave a big year-end bonus on the table and start a company in his garage that influenced our willingness to take Fabrice’s invitation to Paris in the first place. When Bezos pitched the idea for an online bookstore in those Wild West days of the Internet to his boss, D.E. Shaw had agreed it might be a good opportunity, but that “it might be a better idea for someone who didn’t already have a really good job.” Then Bezos explained how he made the contrarian decision to risk a good career. “I wanted to look back on my life at age 80 and minimize the number of regrets I had. I knew that … the one thing I might regret, was never having tried.” This way of looking at decisions had sunk in somehow, and we knew that if we didn’t try Paris, we would regret it. But what I didn’t see were the other traps I was falling into, identified later in the research project, such as binary thinking and maladaptive rumination.
So imagine the profound sense of irony, surprise, and gratitude when four years later, INSEAD offered me a job. It was an adjacent possibility (which we will discuss later) that would never have happened without that first trip to France. But once again the uncertainty, and the possibilities, felt immense. In the years before getting an INSEAD offer, I had come to love my home university. I still had massive student and home loans, but at least I had enough money to fix the bumper and take the kids skiing. Tenure--the once in a career evaluation for professors that grants the job for life--was assured and my kids, now entering junior and high school, were happy and safe, supported by friends and cousins. Why risk this? Especially when it wasn’t clear that I could publish enough to meet INSEAD’s much higher tenure standards, I would be making less money in a more expensive country, we would be leaving our home country, and my children would be thrown into a new education system in a new language. I remember meeting another professor for advice and he confessed, “when I got your email and thought about giving up tenure, I literally barfed in my mouth.”
But by this time, studying how people navigate uncertainty started crystalizing into an emerging research program. As part of my ongoing interviews with innovators like Elon Musk, Indra Nooyi, and Robin Chase, I noticed how they seemed better at navigating the uncertainty that comes with possibility. After these interviews, Susannah and I discussed and we began to wonder, could people like us get better at facing the uncertainty that comes with possibilities? We could see an initial set of ideas starting to emerge from the conversations, and from the research started at Stanford on how companies navigate dynamic environments.
Applying the ideas, though, wasn’t so easy at first. And we hesitated to take the gigantic risk of changing countries, cultures, and employers. But our discussions helped us see things in new ways, like when we realized that by comparing the certainties of home to the uncertainties of France we were making an unfair comparison: we should at least consider the possibilities of France as well in our decision. But to be honest, it was the advice of my grandmother that provided the final insight that guided the rest of the journey. “Parents teach their children to live their dreams, by living their own dreams.” We realized that was the story we wanted to live, and to teach our children, along with grit and resilience in the face of challenge. So we accepted.
Arriving in France a year later felt like a victory, driving past those same chateau gates where I had stood shrouded in fog and despair five years earlier. It also felt like a lesson in possibility. At first, the move to France was like a dream, carrying baguettes home from the bakery and biking through the forest to eat pizza in the impressionist village of Barbizon. But then came the crash. A cold, gray winter descended that did not let up until June the next year. Our children were bullied relentlessly at their “international” school where teachers called students pigs, called individual students “stupide” in front of the entire class and waved a failed test over our children's heads for the rest of the class to see. We had weird experiences like walking paper checks across town to pay for school lunches, the mad-dash early out Wednesdays meant to contain all extracurricular activities, and Saturday morning school for high schoolers. The bands of chic but angsty teens smoking outside the schools, including 12 year olds was troubling. When our car was stolen from the street in front of our house, and the policeman at the station took out a giant leather-bound volume straight from the middle ages to “investigate” whether it was truly a theft or merely in a tow lot somewhere, we knew we would never see the car again. On the professional side, as rejections from submitted papers started trickling in, a crippling self-doubt crept in.
Later, we would discover that this was a normal part of the journey through uncertainty to new possibilities, and could name specific “tools” that could help sustain us through the uncertainty, such as cozy comforts, change curves or using the frustration management techniques introduced to us by Nobel Prize winner, Ben Feringa. But before we had formalized them, we could only muddle through intuitively, without understanding why.
But eventually, 18 months into the journey, the school situation for our children became too much. We had already transferred our oldest to a new school for his senior year--the American School of Paris--a two hour commute each way, after we discovered how poorly prepared he would be for college by the French system. By mid-February, all of the children were depressed. Our oldest confessed to suicidal-ideation. The four-hour round trip commute, leaving and returning home in the icy blackness, the crowded humid trains to Paris and back, the homework load had all taken their toll. We wondered if we had made a massive mistake moving here, and if we were thinking too small? Should we rent a flat near his school? Should Susannah live with him during the week? Should we hire someone to drive him to school? Should we move back to the U.S.? Then, out of the blue, just a few days later, the director of the American School of Paris called and offered that all the children could start, right away if we wanted. But did we? It was the middle of the term, we weren’t sure if how we could entirely afford the tuition, we had an iron-clad apartment contract in Fontainebleau, the rental market in Paris was exceptionally tight, our most-bullied child had managed to land the lead role in the upcoming school play...
As we thought through the risks, I recalled my interview with Steve Blank, serial entrepreneur and father of the lean startup movement. He recalled for me the pivotal moment in his career, while on assignment in Silicon Valley for his engineering firm back in Michigan. He remembers his awe upon opening the San Jose Mercury News to discover page upon page of job listings. Back home, jobs were scarce. At that moment, “I told the other guy with me, ‘I’m going to quit and stay here,’” Blank recalls. “He thought I was insane to give up a good job.” But Blank argued, “what’s the worst case scenario? I knew that at least in this country, I wouldn’t starve.” Taking a page from Blank, as I thought through the worst case scenarios, I realized, they weren’t that bad and the possibilities this could offer our children, were immense.
Four days later, we were racing to the train station, suitcases in hand, and heading to a quirky AirBnB overlooking the cemetery in Montmartre on the northern edge of Paris while we looked for an affordable apartment. I will never forget the collective exhilaration as the train doors shut, my wife and daughters bursting into tears of relief. It was clearly what we needed to do, but the unknowns had felt so scary in the moment. Within a single day, my kids’ whole worlds changed. Their daily educational experience went from dire and crippling to hopeful and invigorating. The thing that felt like the unfixable flaw in our French life was transformed overnight, and we had done it by applying tools we were studying.
At this point, the research on uncertainty possibility felt urgent. We had felt and lived, more clearly than ever, how uncertainty can be transformed into possibility. We could see how much having the right tools could transform the paralyzing anxiety accompanying uncertainty into the right actions to create new opportunities. And we realized that most of us had never been taught these tools during the course of elementary, secondary, and even university education. We also realized that, in addition to the innovators I had been interviewing, there were many other people and professions that have developed a special knack for dealing with uncertainty, such as paramedics, gamblers, artists, dyslexics, venture capitalists, and Nobel prize winners. We started interviewing these people, and digging into the fragmented research on resilience, ambiguity, uncertainty, and complexity, integrating it into what we were learning. I had even given several speeches on the topic, including a Harvard Business Review event for Latin American CEOs when suddenly we, and the rest of the world, got hit sideways by the Covid-19 pandemic.
Almost overnight, the keynote speeches and the training sessions that fund our lives vaporized. KPMG’s chief economist was describing the ensuing current job losses as worse than the Great Depression. I woke up several mornings in a row, absolutely terrified, my mind in the hot vice grip of anxiety: how am I going to pay for the kids’ tuitions, the apartment, the car? It seemed that no logic could save me from the crippling worry gridlocking my reptilian brain. Finally, one morning, Susannah looked at me and said, “if you can’t use these tools we have been thinking and writing about then you can’t write this book.” Stunned, I went downstairs to make coffee. The morning light fell slatternly across the kitchen, illuminating the tiled backsplash which exuded a soft glow in the sunlight. As I watched the coffee beans, their rich brown color spinning into powder in the grinder, emanating that rich earth smell, I remembered the crucial tools of comfort and memento mori. The words of French philosopher, Michael de Montaigne, came to mind “my life has been full of terrible misfortunes, most of which never happened.” I smiled. Even in the worst case, I thought, this would not be taken away from me. As I looked up into the light coming through the window, I realized how I had been thinking in binaries (bankruptcy or not, things returning to pre-pandemic normal or not) but when I enlisted the UP tools: reframe, prime, do and sustain, I realized I could and wanted to face this towering uncertainty well.
After that we passed through multiple confinements, and we passed through more waves of fear and anxiety. But we used the UP tools to transform the different uncertainty we felt, both of us in our own way, into new possibilities. By the end of the many confinements, we knew we had skin in the game, that these tools are field tested, by us, and that they work both for unplanned uncertainty like a pandemic or losing a job as well as planned uncertainty that comes when you pursue possibilities, like taking a new job or leaving a country.
Of course we made mistakes, and continue to make mistakes. This book is based, to the best of our ability on research and evidence, but it is also a theory and an assertion, that still needs proving. Some parts may feel more relevant than others, or you may have developed something that works for you which we have not covered. Use what works and resonates for you; the uncertainty we each face is as much subjective and personal as it is objective and external. But we remain convinced of one thing: the world is full of possibilities that are waiting for us, even in hard circumstances, and having the right tools can help us on the journey to transform that uncertainty into possibilities.
Perhaps some might write this off --our story, and this work--as a story of privilege. Seen through one lens, we are both white US citizens raised by university-educated parents. We both attended university, graduate school, started businesses and I earned a Stanford PhD and now write books, teach, and speak widely earning (barely in the beginning) enough that Susannah has been able to focus on raising our kids while doing other creative pursuits. Seen through another lens, I attended the worst high-school in Oregon, survived my parents terrible divorce, took on immense debt to pay for my own education, lived through periods of not having money to buy enough food, worked humiliating jobs, had only a hundred dollars in our bank account when the mortgage was due, left career, community, country, and religion, adapting to the disagreement and abandonment of family, and are learning to restructure our marriage relationship and career-related values while weathering the pandemic that has left us all dazed and confused at one point or another. So whether our uncertainty possibility story--a bundle of privilege and real struggle both-- and the research that guided will be helpful to you, remains a mystery to us. We really hope it is and hope that you will forgive the fairy tale parts if there are any. Even though we have studied some of the world’s most well-known innovators, we didn’t want to write a book only for the entitled. We wanted to write a book for everyone, and so we reached out and tried to include stories of people from all kinds of backgrounds and hopefully with enough sensitivity that it speaks to everyone, from top CEOs to people stuck in a job they hate.
However, there are two things I did learn as a young man, working in the fields for my parents' nursery beside the migrant workers that the locals called derogatory names, and that is, that these legal and "illegal" immigrants worked far harder than anyone else I knew for families they love and that we live in a world with too much injustice, poverty, and disadvantage that should not be white-washed by just talking about possibility. There is structural injustice and it hurts these fellow human beings, but it also hurts all of us. More possibilities are created when more people participate and we only hurt ourselves when we exclude others. As evolutionary biologist James Gould so eloquently stated, “I am, somehow, less interested in the weight and convolutions of Einstein's brain than in the near certainty that people of equal talent have lived and died in cotton fields and sweatshops.” Imagine what the world could look like, if these people too had been given a chance. We need to create possibilities for everyone, which is after all, part of this story as well. If we can, then the possibilities are indeed infinite. We offer these reflections as one step on that journey for all.