)Un(Comfortable with uncertainty

Frustrated with uncertainty? Keep reminding yourself that in the land of the blind, the one-eyed person is king.

In World War II Ken Arrow was an Air Force meteorologist creating 30-day forecasts with a team of statisticians. After comparing prior forecasts with actual weather, the future Nobel laureate informed his superiors that the forecasts were worthless. Arrow offered to dismantle the group, only to be told the “General is well aware that the forecasts are no good. However he needs them for planning purposes.”

Although 30-day forecasts were impossible, the never-give-up attitude of meteorologists were already starting to pay dividends in more reliable 24 to 48 hour forecasts. Just a couple of years later, this capability allowed Captain James Martin Stagg, a meteorologist attached to the Royal Air Force, to change history.

General Dwight D. Eisenhower had decided to invade Europe on June 5th 1944. The incredibly risky attack required clear moonlight and low tide to skirt German anti-invasion defenses. The window of opportunity was small and any delay would also risk losing the element of surprise. Yet they also needed low winds and calm waters to facilitate fast disembarkation under enemy fire. Captain Stagg met Eisenhower on June 4th and persuaded him to delay the invasion until a short stretch on June 6th because bad weather on the 5th would give the Germans the upper hand.

The Germans could only see bad weather ahead and thought an attack was impossible. Rommel, the German commander, decided to take a few days off to celebrate his wife’s birthday, even taking her a pair of shoes he bought in Paris.

Stagg’s forecast changed the course of war in favor of the Allies. When Eisenhower was President, he was asked why the Normandy invasion had succeeded. He reportedly answered, “Because we had better meteorologists than the Germans.”

When uncertainty frustrates us, we tend to forget that by forecasting, measuring and reassessing our forecasts we learn and improve, and that even a small advantage over a competitor or the market can make a big difference.

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