Valuing Uncertainty

Valuing Uncertainty

Being absolutely certain about what’s supposed to happen next can be a major obstacle.

There’s a big difference between being ready for what comes next and deciding you know exactly what is going to come next.  The former is like returning the ball in a tennis match.  You need to do what you can to be ready to deal with what comes at you, but you are well aware that you won’t know what that is until it’s on the way.

Assuming you know what’s coming next is like deciding your opponent is going to lob the ball and positioning yourself for that specific shot.  You’re out of position for every other shot that might come once the ball is on the way.  Much as it seems carefully thought, it’s far less effective–in tennis and in life.

When you decide you know something you really can’t know, you’ve essentially devalued information that’s available to help you know.  It becomes part of the “background noise” that your sensory system filters out before you even realize it’s there. You don’t get to decide about that information because you’ve already decided it isn’t relevant.  Except it is!

Ellen Langer puts it well in her 2009 book, Counterclockwise:  Mindful Health and the Power of Possibility :  “Certainty is a cruel mindset.”  She makes the point relative to medical care and illness, but it’s equally true for career planning, interpersonal relationships, and romance.

We get a lot of advice to “ask for what you want” and “visualize your ideal” but there’s a downside to that approach.  If I ask for a chocolate chip cookie and the person to whom I made the request is both capable of and willing to give me a glorious box of handmade chocolate truffles instead, I will never know what I missed out on.  If I write down that I want “a regular fulltime job with good benefits,” the chance to do something with an unconventional work schedule that suits me better will never hit my radar.

Yes, we need to know what we need and want.  And we need to be effective in expressing it.  But do the specifics make a difference?  If not, don’t use them.  “A meaningful job doing challenging works with pay that covers my needs” leaves a lot more room for positive surprises than “a senior level accounting job in a Fortune 500 firm.”

To give yourself direction, be specific about what you need rather than what kind of clothes you’re going to be wearing when you get it.

In that same vein, stay open to being open.  Don’t rule anything out until you really look at it.  It’s easy to say you’re open to new directions, but it takes a concerted effort to get your mind to go to those unfamiliar places.  Look for the unusual possibilities and look at them when they appear.

Life is an adventure.  None of us know what is going to come next.  The better you get at dealing with what does (instead of deciding what should have) the more enjoyable the adventure will be.  And the better you will set things up for the next positive surprise.

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