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The Certainty of Uncertainty

For most of my adult life, I have been a happy resident of the land of uncertainty. It’s been more than a decade since I’ve had a full-time job. I have relocated to new cities several times. I have tried all kinds of hobbies and classes. All these experiences have allowed me to build up a strong tolerance for the unknown, whether it’s a flying leap I take on my own (like dropping everything to move to New York) or an unexpected fiasco thrust upon me (like 2020.)

Admittedly, I was born with an above-average interest in venturing outside my Comfort Zone, but it was a million little ventures that allowed me to function there. Each trip instilled in me an ability to manage my stress, stay focused and continue to move forward in face of uncertainty. Here are a few examples that I encourage you to try at home.

Join a group where you don’t know anyone.

Many life choices I have made required me to go solo. I went to college in a big city where I knew only one other person, so every activity and course involved meeting new people. After college, I moved to another city, where I didn’t speak the language very well. I not only had to enter a room full of strangers, but my ability to communicate was limited.

Along the way, I learned that I needed to let go of my expectations, listen more carefully, and use critical thinking skills and emotional intelligence in order to navigate situations on the fly. Each time was a little easier than the last, and it encouraged me to walk into bigger and scarier rooms. (Public speaking, anyone?)

This is not to say that I wasn’t uncomfortable or afraid. I was. But my desire to participate always outweighed the awkwardness. Over the years, I have entered countless rooms full of strangers with no lasting damage and many wonderful experiences to show for it. Now I hardly think twice about showing up for something alone and not knowing who will be there or what will happen. It's also armed me for times when I unknowingly and unexpectedly walk into a room full of strangers. Instead of finding an exit, I find a conversation.

Accept that you don’t and can’t know everything. Then try things anyway.

I studied journalism in college, and the bane of my existence was cold calling people for school assignments. I hated not knowing how the interview would go, and I was afraid my questions would be dumb. I was certain if I just knew enough, I’d be able to do the interview. Ironically, the people with the information I needed were the same people I needed to call.

My journalism career lasted a whole two years after college, and, in that time, I never got better at picking up the phone and calling people. Looking back, I can see now that my problem wasn’t that I didn’t know enough. My problem was that I thought I needed to know everything.

Since then, I have stopped focusing on “what if” and started trusting that I’ll figure it out. For instance, when I lead a workshop, I can’t be sure of how many people will show up, what they will think of the material, or what questions they will ask. And no amount of preparation will change that. These are unknowable factors.

Instead, I focus on putting together the best presentation that I can, I stay present in the room (virtual or physical), so I can see and hear everything that is happening, and I trust that whatever happens, I will be able to handle the situation.

If you are always waiting to be ready, you’ll likely spend your life waiting to be ready.

Stop chasing certainty. It’s an unwinnable race.

No matter how tightly we grasp on to permanence, it eventually slips from our hands. If 2020 has taught us nothing else, we’ve learned uncertainty is the only certainty.

Uncertainty creates a fog of stress and anxiety that blinds people to the big picture. When we experience uncertainty, our instincts often send us on a wild goose chase to find the certainty that we lost. In doing so, we blind ourselves to new opportunities and silver linings that come our way. During the three years I lived in New York, I told myself that I could enjoy city as soon as I had steady income. I had never had trouble finding a job before. By simply meeting enough people and putting myself out there, I was positive that someone would hire me. My charm and wit had always been enough to get me work in the past. That’s how things had always worked. Always! For three years, I was having this conversation with myself, which blocked out the advice from a few close friends that I would be better off leaving the city and moving back to Nantucket. I couldn’t let go of the belief that New York was sure to embrace me just like the small tight-knit community of Nantucket did. Just like my short stint in journalism, I don’t regret my brief time in New York. That being said, my inability to accept that my tried-and-true methods were no longer true led to a lot of tears and disappointment. As Spencer Johnson writes in his book Who Moved My Cheese, the faster you can accept change and uncertainty, the quicker you find new cheese.

Time to try this at home!

Here are some small challenges to get your started:

  • Attend a free program or virtual activity in a different community

  • At your next staff meeting, raise your hand and ask a question

  • Make a list of ten ways you have benefited from uncertainty

  • Cook something you’ve never made before

  • Call a friend you haven’t talked to in the last 5 years

  • Host a trivia night and invite two people you’ve been meaning to hang out with

  • Fill your gas tank and drive to a new location without using GPS.

Here is one more. Call or text me for a free 15-minute chat to find out what life coaching is and how you might benefit from it. Who know what you’ll discover!

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