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Facing uncertainty in life – the way forward

By G. Balasubramanian

“I don’t know what is ahead of me”; “I don’t what will happen after this”; “The future likes gloom and uncertain” – Most of us are not unfamiliar with these statements. At some point of our life, we have also breathed the air of uncertainty impacting our thoughts, emotions, feeling and migrating us to a land of darkness and gloom. There are many who consoled themselves by saying ‘this too will pass”. There are others who sat in quietude as mute witnesses saying, ‘let it go’. A few others were valiant enough to say “Well, I am going to try this out.” “Patience pays, my dear; Stay put where you are, hold your breath”, you will find soon a ray of hope” – there are advisors carrying this placard on their mouth. Uncertainty is indeed a game we play throughout our life.

Bob Goff, the famous American author, and speaker says “Embrace uncertainty. Some of the most beautiful chapters in our lives won’t have a title until much later.” Uncertainty is integral to our life systems. From birth to death, we go on facing several uncertainties in all facets of life. Nevertheless, we don’t give up and most often face the emerging challenges in the womb of uncertainty with courage, conviction, and confidence. Sometimes we are ignorant of the contents on the backpack of uncertainty and sometimes we can predict its contents and evaluate its possible impact on our life and the future ahead. If we do not accept uncertainty as the part of our progress in life, we develop a sense of fear, a sense of insecurity and get into a shell. We hesitate to take risks, we hesitate to move ahead, we tend to live comfort zones and we deny our own progress consciously. This indeed liquidates our profile and projects us weak and tiny objects in the gallery of performers. We sit down in the gallery clapping for the success of others without smelling the aroma of success in our lives. We tend to subjugate our self-worth and feel happy to serve others without climbing on the ladders of leadership. “Uncertainty is the only certainty there is, and knowing how to live with insecurity is the only security” says John Allen Paulos. The ability to cope with uncertainty is a critical human skill.

“The future is uncertain… but this uncertainty is at the very heart of human creativity”, says Ilya Prigogine, the noted Physicist and Nobel Laureate of Russian origin. If one is unwilling to break open the barrier of uncertainty, the path of progress will always remain dark and fearful. When one is willing to travel on the roads less travelled, it opens the gateways of knowledge. The breeze of the fresh air could inspire people to fanciful dreams, imaginations and push them towards experimenting with new knowledge. The gush of new information triggers excitement and thrill. But the question remains how many of us are willing to face the uncertainty with comfort? The belief that one can face the unknown with comfort drives the hormones to engage with action. Blaise Pascal, the famous scientist observes “It is not certain that everything is uncertain.”

How do face uncertainty courageously?

1. Embracing uncertainty

The moment we are willing to embrace uncertainty as the gift of the future, the fear about it will get discredited naturally and in a phased manner. With fear fading progressively, it would be possible to access the relevant information, knowledge and experience relating to the unknown and uncertain. This promotes proximity, familiarity and communicability with the data, information, knowledge, circumstances, people, and all that is relevant. “Our anxiety does not come from thinking about the future, but from wanting to control it” says Kahlil Gibran. So, any effort to control uncertainty will backfire on our existing confidence profile itself. Taking the first step towards uncertainty is vital for any progress. As such leaders, need to have this skill of moving towards uncertainty with confidence. Says the article on six strategies for leading through uncertainty by Rebecca Zucker and Darin Rowell in Harvard Business Review “Leaders often get stuck in the challenges they face because they are too immersed in them. “Zooming out,” or moving from “the dance floor to the balcony,” as described by Ron Heifetz, Marty Linksy, and Alexander Grashow in The Practice of Adaptive Leadership provides you with a broader perspective and a systemic view of the issues and can shine a light on unexamined assumptions that would otherwise not be visible. From this “balcony” or elevated vantage point, interdependencies and larger patterns become observable, potentially revealing unforeseen obstacles and new solution”.

2. Planning for uncertainty

Normally, we want to face uncertainty on ‘as is where is’ basis. We think we can face things as they come. This casual attitude often takes us out of our boot to make us walk through some thorny spots. It is therefore important to foresee, anticipate and plan for continuity. Walking into the dark with ignorance is possibly dangerous even to our existing morale. While one might raise the question ‘what can plan about the uncertainty’, the possibilities of challenges are not invisible but only diffuse. We possibly need a stronger vision and a conceptual lens to look ahead at the future. Says an article by the American Psychology Association on uncertainty “Reflect on past successes. Chances are you’ve overcome stressful events in the past—and you survived! Give yourself credit. Reflect on what you did during that event that was helpful and what you might like to do differently this time. “The courage to move on is essential for unlocking the doors of fear that blocks the gateways to the unknown. Martin Luther King Jr. remarks “Courageous men never lose the zest for living even though their life situation is zestless; cowardly men, overwhelmed by the uncertainties of life, lose the will to live. We must constantly build dykes of courage to hold back the flood of fear.

3. Facing uncertainty

“If there’s one thing that’s certain in business, it’s uncertainty Says” Stephen Covey Some uncertainty comes like a tornado. On other occasions it develops like a cyclone. It could even be a tremor accompanied by a tsunami. It could be like a boulder falling on a landscape. One cannot predict the nature of uncertainty in life. However, the shelf life of uncertainty appears short compared to our ability to manage events. All that one would need is to handle with patience, care, and tolerance. “Research shows that people react differently to uncertainty, and that those with a higher intolerance for uncertainty may be less resilient and more prone to low mood, negative or down feelings, and anxiety.” The complexity the uncertainty brings calls for a careful study and analysis. It is important to respond adequately to uncertainty than react. Coping, adopting, and responding to uncertainty is indeed a skill. One needs to have a good blend of common sense and pragmatism alongside the knowledge. Oversimplification of the uncertainty or even seeking instant solutions might be showing smartness the person, not necessarily the wisdom of the person. “The quality of your life is in direct proportion to the amount of uncertainty you can comfortably deal with” says Tony Robbins.

4. Understand and operate in the circle of influence.

Every individual has a circle of influence. While handling uncertainty, there are certain factors that come under the circle of influence of the individual in terms of knowledge, skills, relationships, mastery and emotional connects. It may be possible to operate with them with ease and comfort level. There are a few other issues that exist beyond the comprehension and the skill sets of the individual. They fall beyond the circle of influence. It is important to develop a team, a set of people who have adequate knowledge and skill sets in those areas. One should be able to take them along rather than going alone. Leading a team to face uncertainty is indeed worth celebrating, but a person who does not know how to lead the self cannot lead others, especially to the domains of uncertainty.

5. Accepting Limitations

It is important to understand that so single individual, or for that matter no system is empowered with all resources to face the uncertainty in all its spheres of operation. The depth, intensity and the extent of uncertainty is not known always. Hence it is quite possible to fully face the same always. There is nothing wrong to acknowledge, accept and work with the limited competencies one has, rather than to lament on the inoperative part of the domains of uncertainty. “Once we accept our limits, we go beyond them,” said Albert Einstein. It is to be understood that accepting limitations does not amount to a belief system that is defeatist. One should ensure that the human spirit always moves ahead of the limitations. That alone helps in breaking barriers and scaling peaks. “Our limitations and success will be based, most often, on your own expectations for ourselves. What the mind dwells upon, the body acts upon” says Denis Waitley, American author, and motivational speaker.