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Doubt is uncomfortable, but certainty is absurd
Doubt is uncomfortable, but certainty is absurd

The French writer and philosopher, Voltaire, was a very smart man. So smart that he, with mathematician Charles Marie de La Condamine, worked out that the French national lottery was rigged, but absurdly, not in its favour. In fact, the lottery had miscalculated and the prize money amounted to more than the value of all the tickets. Voltaire and La Condamine set up a consortium to corner the market, and Voltaire made nearly half a million francs – a fortune which set him up for a lifetime of thinking and writing.

A lottery is all about chance. And here was a lottery where the outcome was certain. So, not a lottery at all. In life, we don’t like the idea of it being a lottery. We want it to be predictable. But it isn’t.

Voltaire made this point very succinctly:

Doubt is uncomfortable, but certainty is absurd

If we doubted that before, the pandemic has shown us that assumptions can be swept away. You deal with that not by being better at forecasting – a hopeless and deluded task – but by not requiring forecasting. Being adaptable, quick on your feet, agile – those are the skills to seek.

These are hard times for charities (and every part of the economy) – there is a natural tendency to draw your horns in, to live within your means etc. to do less of what you do, and certainly nothing new.

We continually see risk in the wrong way.

We talk about charities as being risk-averse, as though that is a good thing. Risk is attached not just to what you do, but also to what you don’t do.

Not knowing what’s coming, and knowing you don’t know what’s coming, can be powerful. You no longer need to caution yourself with the thought: ‘what if it doesn’t work?’ It may well not work. It may well work. Allow for both possibilities. Then risk isn’t this amorphous, worrying entity, but a factor which you are aware of, and can plan for accordingly.

A crisis, by definition, makes you feel uncomfortable.

But it is also a massive opportunity. It is an invitation to do things differently. It releases you to experiment, to try new things, to take risks, to fail. What could be more exciting?


Michael Isaacs

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