Please read Part I here.
In precise terms, we can consider how humans are neurally wired to fear the unknown. Uncertainty, whether at the macro level of a global healthcare crisis along with economic unraveling and geopolitical shifts or at the micro level of questioning the right job placement, personal performance before an annual review, or the trajectory of a new business enterprise can all be at altogether nerve-wracking, emotionally exhausting, and existentially dreadful.
We all have to push through unknown circumstances to achieve something great; whether in consideration of monumental achievements that we are proud of, relationships that make our life worth living, or inspirational moments that produce personal transformation – these all tell of a period of uncertainty prior to the life event itself. Many have their own accounts of moving abroad, paying higher taxes, doing more challenging work, and learning new cultures and languages all the while string to support their families. Even contemporary heroes have their own version. Rosa Parks had encountered great uncertainty when she refused to give up her seat and launched the Montgomery bus boycott, igniting the embers of racial desegregation. Most had thought Elon Musk would fail when his team would venture out to mobilize economy-friendly vehicles that operated on an electric platform. Their breakthroughs occurred as they courageously moved past uncertainty.
Innovators and history revolutionaries have all navigated uncertainty; it does not have to paralyze us in the unknown. Findings in the research literature are evident: we can navigate uncertainty and maneuver past circumstances tied to the unknown with resilience and tolerance for the ambiguous. We can empower ourselves to step into confidence while moving past uncertainty and confidently seize the opportunities that are present before us.
Reinterpret your circumstances
Many studies have concluded the importance of how you frame things will impact how you make choices. As an example, if one prescription treatment is being noted as 95% effective and another advertisement indicates that it is 5% ineffective, then consumers are more likely to buy the product that highlights 95% effectiveness. Even though the two are statistically identical, consumers prefer the former. All changes, innovations, transformations, and new enterprises – albeit personal or professional – come with upsides and downsides. It is possible to release fear and experience a shift in mindset to reinterpret the circumstances that are uncertain. New York University Professor James Carse notes practical advice on this through the “infinite game” approach. His counsel is to “stop seeing the rules, boundaries, and purpose of the ‘game’ you’re playing – the job you’re after, the project you’ve been assigned, the career path you’re on – as fixed. That puts you in a win-or-lose mentality in which uncertainty heightens your anxiety. In contrast – infinite players recognize uncertainty as an essential part of the game – one that adds an element of surprise and possibility and enables them to challenge their roles and the game’s parameters.”
We all must face uncertainty with courage. We must even become truly energized by its nature.
Take new risks
Most innovators indicate that they would eat uncertainty as part of a healthy diet. Steve Jobs had a lifetime supply of black turtlenecks. Designer Paul Smith always stays in the same hotel, and often in the same room, during travels. Many wear the same clothes, book the same flight with the same assigned seat number, and have a consistent morning routine. These routines and habits indicate that by reducing uncertainty in various parts of life, we are allowing for uncertainty to be tolerated in other parts. Former CEO of Match.com and Time’s 100 most influential people, Sam Yagan cites that, “My best friends are from junior high and high school. I married my high school sweetheart. Given how much ambiguity I traffic in at work, I look for less in other areas of my life.” Risks can come in the form of financial, intellectual, emotional, relational, physical, geographical, and so on. It becomes important to know what types of risks you tolerate well and which ones you are not as prone to so that you can prepare well and approach the other risks with greater confidence. Piet Coelewij, a former executive for both Amazon and Phillips left the corporate marketplace to help establish the European-based Sonos company. He took up kick-boxing and noted, “Once you are in a cycle of lowering fear and developing courage, you create a virtuous circle that allows you to continuously improve.”
Taking the first step and learning as you go is one of the first lessons when dealing with uncertainty. Try starting modestly and making single-step efforts as you find yourself in the unknown. In many settings that are ambiguous, research indicates that well-known and successful breakthroughs are accomplished through a series of single steps rather than an ‘all-in’ form of effort. Oftentimes with uncertainty, effective maneuvering through these circumstances can be relegated to developing systems of learning processes. Focus on what you value instead of aims and goals. The fulfillment of these goals will soon follow, and you will gain the confidence needed to make the moves that you need to no matter how others tend to respond, and this becomes a surefound path into a redefinition of your success. A focus on values rather than goals will launch us forward into new territory.
A Nobel Prize winner, Ben Feringa, for his work on molecular machines that could turn into nanobots and clean the pipes in our homes or flush the toxins out of our blood stream, reflects that discovery only occurs in the face of uncertainty. He muses that you have to “get resilient with handling the frustration that comes with it.” He desires all to navigate paralyzing self-doubt in the dawn of uncertainty and unproductive rumination through a process of emotional hygiene in which we attend to negative emotions as well as acknowledging that failure is part of the process in negotiating through uncertainty with personal reality checks. Questions arise as: What insight can I take away from this uncertainty? What is the next step I can work on? If I recast the setback and put on a learning lens, what can I learn and still have from what was lost? Have I become a hero by tackling this challenge? If this outcome was not in the right timing, when would it be the right time?
Many creators, entrepreneurs, and researchers in various fields hold onto what really matters and are absorbed by the people that are valuable to them. This allows them to navigate the potential fear of losses and the eventual pain that comes with uncertain outcomes. This new year, let us transform how we interact with change and allow for uncertainty to become a passage into possibility. Learning to transition the unknown into potential possibility gives hope for an unrealized future not yet. Our lives can be richer, more meaningful, and authentically happier on this side of uncertain challenges.
“We all have to push through unknown circumstances to achieve something great; whether in consideration of monumental achievements that we are proud of, relationships that make our life worth living, or inspirational moments that produce personal transformation.
By Deepak Santhiraj, Licensed Clinical Social Worker
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