The power of uncertainty

April 03 2016

“I think it is much more interesting to live with uncertainty than to live with answers that might be wrong.”

That’s Richard Feynman – a Nobel prize winning theoretical physicist speaking on the virtues of uncertainty.

I’m studying to work in the field of political data – a field that relies on massive datasets, and as with most sciences, has little room for chance and uncertainty.

I want to tell you two stories, both of which took place in 2014, and proved to me that being uncertain about something has the power to transform lives in ways that being absolutely sure of something simply cannot.

I began my college experience at Ithaca College in New York. I was majoring in communications and technology, and I thought my life was going down a certain path. After a semester at Ithaca, I arrived home and proudly announced that I was sure I would transfer to American University in Washington, D.C.

I had visited American during high school, and was pretty sure I would like it. It was a good, safe choice.

So I planned to apply there. Now, I had two friends from high school convince me, on a whim, to apply to George Washington University, also in Washington D.C. Now GWU, was a bit of a reach, and a very different setting that I was used to, but I applied.

When I went back to Ithaca in January, I focused my efforts on applying to transfer to those two schools. A few months later, I went into a meeting with an advisor and was confronted with a logistical problem: I had to withdraw from Ithaca before I would hear from the schools I hoped to transfer to. Now, it would have been a lot easier to just stay at Ithaca. I had made more friends during my second semester, and would have probably been happy if I had simply stayed there. Conversely, I had the potential to be a lot happier if I withdrew, and begun my sophomore year at another college.

My advisor asked me to make this decision and gave me little time to respond. I took the leap. I could have taken the safe option, but I chose to go with the option that excited and scared me.


On June 14th 2014, I got into GWU, and couldn’t have been happier. I didn’t know what would happen to me once I started school. Transferring asked more questions about my life than it answered.

The most important of these soon became clear: whom would I be living with starting in late August?

It was random, uncertain, completely out of my hands. I had to just wait and see.
When I arrived at my new school I was skeptical, shy, and unsure of how to move forward. At first, I wished I could either live alone, or perhaps with one of the early friends I made.

I couldn’t have been more wrong.

The genius of the random roommate assignment was astounding to say the least. I’d been forced out of my comfort zone, and to live with someone who I didn’t necessarily want to live with. Thank God I realized how lucky I was before it was too late. Because of who I lived with, I’ve been opened up to an inconceivable wealth of friends and experiences. The unpredictability of living where I did has improved my life more than anything I can think of, and I’m incredibly grateful to my former roommate, whom I now consider among my best friends.

I simply cannot imagine what my life would be like had I not trusted the uncertain.

Please, reach out to me if you want to talk about randomness, statistics, or any of the other paradoxical concepts that make up our lives.

Russell Bowman
[email protected]
Washington, DC

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