Uncertainty never leaves our lives. Time to time, it will come up from behind and tap you on the shoulder to remind you it’s around. How we choose to see uncertainty, accept it and respond to it makes all the difference.
“I don’t know.”
As the changes brought on by COVID-19 are becoming more pronounced, people have either thought or uttered those three words this week.
Unfortunately, that includes a lot of people. Some employed. Others working freelance. Some, unfortunately, now unemployed in the business like creating experiences around content. This week, I’ve personally seen incredibly talented people’s suddenly have to negotiate a career transition and deal with the uncertainty of figuring out what comes next.
With over 10-million unemployed and even more now worrying about the possibility, many are now saying to themselves…
“I don’t know how I’m going to pay the bills.”
“I don’t know when I’m going back.”
“I don’t know if I’ll have a job after this.”
“I don’t know if I’m infected.”
It’s totally reasonable for people to feel like they are walking blind towards their future. Feeling anxiety from lack of clarity is almost expected.
“I don’t know” and uncertainty feel especially stressful with COVID-19.
I’m seeing it. Posts from friends on Facebook and LinkedIn announcing that they are now “in transition.” As a large part of the economy has shut down, a former work colleague recently reached out. Suddenly being without clients or income, they were extremely distraught not knowing how they were going to pay for a place to live in their extremely rent-expensive city.
I could feel the stress and worry they had as they grappled with uncertainty. I helped best I could.
Disruptions like a sudden job loss can rudely separate us from the luxurious feeling we feel when we’re able to rest on the soft, comfortable bed of certainty. As human beings, we crave it. Certainty makes life simple. Certainty doesn’t challenge us. It frees us to focus on more pleasurable pursuits and distractions.
Employed or working on a steady gig? Until that intervening moment by fate, there was a warm comfort in knowing that the sun would rise. That your spouse would leave another annoying note about picking up milk on the fridge. That today, you’d be sipping your first cup of coffee at 9:30 am before really settling into your workday.
Then one day, and one change, it’s different.
Suddenly we don’t know what’s next anymore. We suddenly realize that we actually savored both the good and bad we experienced when we had certainty. You miss your prickly boss. Or that client that killed your great ideas. As if repetition, work frustration was actually emotional comfort food.
But now, we must look into the dark abyss of uncertainty. We try to see a path forward. When we do, it is frustrating to feel like you looked at the universe for insight or a vision and it just shrugged back at you.
“Some help you are, universe.”
But here’s the thing about uncertainty.
While we may be shocked when our future becomes unclear, we forget that the future has ALWAYS been unclear.
At any given time, we “don’t know” a lot of things about our future. We often confuse the fleeting stability, repetition or boring calm for certainty. But like the financial disclaimer that you hear from investment firms, “past results are not a guarantee of future performance,” the future is not set in stone.
What’s certain is change. What’s uncertain is when and how.
While some of us may live successful lives, tomorrow, we could have our lives upended getting hit by a truck. A truck that was rude in not telling us it would be changing our lives in advance.
A person who jogs to stay healthy can be blindsided with a heart attack even though, health-wise, they were confident because as a runner, “they did everything right.”
There are lots of people who do their jobs right, every day. I work with a lot of them. People who do superior work in UX, content and software development. Work that seems unrelated to a wet market allowing a virus to pass from one animal to another on the other side of the world. Yet the two events have collided. Known and unknown things assert themselves into our lives at their own pleasure, destroying our precious feeling of certainty.
To understand this is to also understand that we have no control over everything around us (except for us). the concept of certainty, at best, is an illusion. Change will always happen. With or without our permission.
Certainty has always been an illusion.
If it is an illusion, then we are the magician performing the trick.
The illusion is created when we, as human beings, choose to view our lives in ways that mentally screen out the probability and risk related to uncertainty. In short, we ignore it.
Any time I get on a plane to commute to my work office, there is a statistical 800,000 to 1 chance I could die. But I and other self-entitled passengers get on the plane more concerned about finding a good place to store my carry-on luggage in my section or what the in-flight meal is because I’ve filtered out the risk and uncertainty of flying in my mind.
I feel and project the illusion of control. In my mind, not landing by 3:30 pm to get to the gym by 5 on a Sunday afternoon is the worst thing that could happen on the flight. A perception that assumes I believe my plane’s arrival in one piece is a given. While the risk is indeed low, I’m sure most of us have seen stories about planes, so it’s not 100% certain.
Now when the plane encounters strong turbulence, as it did a few times early this year, all of a sudden, some of the uncertainty filters get removed temporarily, and I consciously remember there is risk in air travel.
Nothing changed, odds wise, before I decided to get into the plane. A few violent rocks of the cabin created new signals that tapped me on the shoulder to remind me of uncertainty. Now I see the same situation I didn’t care about or took for granted, in a way that temporarily creates anxiety about my future. Still, a few days later, I get on the next plane because even when reminded, I embrace that risk. Why? More on that in a moment.
For some, COVID-19 is that turbulence. That tap on the shoulder that reminds us that uncertainty has never left our side.
This is not saying to be paranoid about uncertainty.
Quite the opposite. Face it. Embrace it.
Uncertainty will always be your partner in life. I have a personal saying, “Challenge is my girlfriend.” What I’m talking about is knowing that you are in a life-long relationship with uncertainty and it’s important that you be comfortable with it. It’s not your enemy. It’s more that you need to learn how to work together.
Uncertainty can only truly stop you from the things that you want when you learn to fear it and let it freeze you in place. When you embrace uncertainty and see it as an opportunity that you can learn and grow from, rather than just a place for chaos, you can find and seize success from it.
As a former business founder and owner, I can tell you entrepreneurs are people who must embrace loads of uncertainty. Uncertainty in the form of an untested idea. Lack of funding. Unproven market demand. When you’ll be paid next. Building a business or product is stressful, ambiguous and an environment where failure IS an option.
And yet, people we hail as titans of industry like Steve Jobs of Apple or Sara Blakely of Spanx arose from that uncertainty. Faced with uncertainty about the business’s cash flow, the founder of FedEx, Fred Smith, gambled the then-fledgling and struggling company’s last $5000 in cash reserves at a casino in the 1970s to win enough money to keep the company operating a little longer.
Parents face uncertainty in raising children. Will the child you have be successful? Healthy? Happy? There are no promises, but millions do it anyway and succeed.
Celebrity and entertainer, The Rock, was fired from a football team with 7 dollars to his name. Imagine how he felt being cut from what he thought was his life’s career. Now, not only was is career up for grabs but also how would he support a family with 7 dollars in his pocket? He could have been resigned to accept a fate. Instead, he embraced the unknown, moved forward and a superstar was born. But then again, he made the eye-rolling Baywatch movie, so it’s hard to argue that his effort was a complete success.
Despite the uncertainty and unclear odds, those people and others found a way to move forward and thrive. When faced with uncertainty around COVID-19 or a job loss, we can, too.
Uncertainty is not a stop sign. It’s just a choice.
It’s a fork in the road that we all repeatedly come to on our journey through work and life. One way leads to fear and paralysis or hoping things stay the same. The other can lead to a new success, even a new you. When you meet the fork in the road in our own lives, be ready to take the road not taken.