Uncertainty: Friend and Foe
“When you become comfortable with uncertainty, Infinite Possibilities open up in your life.”— Eckhart Tolle
I’m hoping you, like me, didn’t feel the need to stockpile toilet paper at the beginning of the pandemic. While it’s still a matter of research why the toilet paper supply chain became the focus of our anxieties, it was also an understandable response to the uncertainty that accompanies unexpected existential threats.
Our lives are an endless stream of decisions. What to wear today? What to have for lunch? Which task to complete first? How to handle that talk with the boss? How much toilet roll to buy in the next weekly shop? Each of these decisions involves assessment of the future, which is, to varying degrees, inherently uncertain.
Your mind can handle much of this uncertainty in its stride. We “surf uncertainty” by automating decisions, assuming that what has worked in the past will work in the future. But for more important decisions, uncertainty can become debilitating. If we can identify a strategy to handle the uncertainty, then we can move forward. But if no obvious strategy presents itself, then we can start to experience the symptoms of stress.
One study, for example, found that knowing for sure you’ll get an electric shock was less stressful than knowing there’s a 50% chance of getting one. During a series of layoffs at her company, a petroleum engineer I spoke to actually hoped to get the axe rather than go through more rounds of anxiety as the company’s work force was repeatedly decimated.
It doesn’t have to be like this.
The future is uncertain because of change. Some change is beyond our control, but some change is instigated by ourselves. This means that while the future is unpredictable, it has yet to be defined. Uncertainty is our window of opportunity to influence the future.
Our influence over the future can be enhanced greatly by strengthening our ability to concentrate on, and raise our awareness of, how change is evolving. Most importantly, the more we understand change, the more confident we can be in forming an opinion about what we want the future to look like.
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