Uncertainty: What To Do When You Don’t Know…

'The only thing that makes life possible is permanent, intolerable uncertainty; not knowing what comes next.' ~ Ursula K. Le GuinClick To Tweet

I remember as a child, the excitement that would build and build in the lead-up to Christmas Day. Starting with putting up the tree and decorating it, school finishing up for the summer holidays (I live in the Southern Hemisphere), going shopping with my saved-up pocket money to buy gifts for family…

Uncertainty Vortex

There were always presents that Father Christmas would bring on Christmas Eve, but there were also quite a few presents from Mum and Dad (and later just Mum) under the tree in the few days leading up to the main event.

You just didn’t know – in spite of all the squeezing and shaking and poking and prodding you could get away with – what goodies lay inside.

As children, we largely embrace uncertainty as excitement and anticipation. Even though I knew we didn’t have lots of money, and it was unlikely that most (or even any) of my wish list items were carefully wrapped up beneath that tree, the excitement of not knowing – the uncertainty – was tantalisingly lovely.

So what happens? Why is it, that as we grow up, we start seeing uncertainty as something to fear… or at best, something to walk towards reluctantly?

As leaders, part of our role is to shoulder all of that uncertainty for the other people in our organisation – to face the future bravely and openly, without letting on that there is anything to fear.

That’s a lonely place to be.

Here are some ways to make carrying that burden just a little bit easier.

Understand it

'Do not dwell in the past, do not dream of the future, concentrate the mind on the present moment.' ~ BuddhaClick To Tweet

When you are young, most of your experience is novelty. Time passes more slowly because your brain has to work harder to process all the new experiences it is having. First day at school, first kiss, first taste of ice-cream, first time home alone, first day at high-school…

Uncertainty Meditation Zen

As we get older, the frequency of novelty decreases substantially. Some people go out of their way to seek out that novelty on a regular basis. But most of us, myself included, ‘settle’ into a routine. Even if that routine has all the best things that you ever hoped for, if you have them every day they become ‘normal’.

The other thing that happens to us, is we start to think that time is a flow. That we are travelling through time, with our past behind us, and our future in front of us.

I don’t want to blow you mind, but this is actually a construct of your mind. And my mind. It isn’t ‘real’.

You only exist in this moment. And this one.

The things you have previously experienced are able to be recalled by your brain when you ‘remember’. These experiences help your brain anticipate and predict what’s going to happen next. They also include a range of skills and capabilities that will enable you to cope with all sorts of things that might occur…

The future doesn’t exist yet. Your anticipation of it is created by your brain.

And guess who’s in control of what your brain anticipates?

You are.

Believe it or not, you are in control of how you think about the future. You are in control of what the future holds, because the only place it exists is in your mind. So create the future you want.

Accept it

'Being at ease with not knowing is crucial for answers to come to you.' ~ Eckhart TolleClick To Tweet

Ask yourself this simple question.

“Does worrying about the future help you in any way?”

Uncertainty Acceptance Harmony

Now I want to be clear, by worrying, I mean anxiety. I mean unproductive thinking.

In my own experience, I have found that worrying about something seldom helps. There are times when trying to anticipate the possible negative outcomes of something can be useful – but only if you take action and do something as a consequence of that thinking.

But unproductive worry, worry that goes round in round in your head without going anywhere, creates a physiological stress response. Your body starts prioritising functions that will help you flee – or fight. And takes energy and blood-flow away from things that can help you – like executive functioning in your brain.

This is useful when you’re actually in a bad situation, but not so useful when you are simply imagining one!

The most productive thing you can do is accept that you can’t control what’s going to happen. Accept that uncertainty. Prepare by all means, if you can see logical potential outcomes, but stop over-thinking it!

Embrace it

'Infuse your life with action. Don't wait for it to happen. Make it happen. Make your own future. Make your own hope. Make your own love. And whatever your beliefs, honor your creator, not by passively waiting for grace to come down from upon high, but by doing what you can to make grace happen... yourself, right now, right down here on Earth.' ~ Bradley WhitfordClick To Tweet

The truly empowering and life-altering thing to do, though, is to embrace that uncertainty. As strange as it sounds. And to do something.

Uncertainty Carousel

Embrace it with both arms and make something happen.

Own it. Make it yours. Take steps to steer it in the direction you want. That is the power of strategic thinking. Being able to figure out desirable futures… and then taking active steps to get you there.

Do you know the difference between fear and excitement?

The label you give a set of physiological symptoms inside your head.

That’s it.

Fear feels like sweaty palms, racing breath, tunnel vision, time slowing down…

What does excitement feel like?

So be careful about the words you use in your own head. They have power.

You might not be able to change the way events unfold to exactly match what you wanted to have happen, but you can control how you respond to it.

And you can give yourself the grace to be resilient and capable and resourceful. Because you are.

Whatever comes your way, you have it within you to survive – and even thrive.


Hear me chatting with Hayley Collins

Hayley’s podcast is great, I strongly recommend you subscribe so you don’t miss a single one!

In Episode 25 she chats with me about what it means to be a Chief Executive – some of the things that people tell you but you don’t really understand until you’re alone in the hot-seat.

This is a side of me you won’t have seen, as I don’t talk much about my ‘day-job’ here on the Blog.


The First Time Manager’s Crash Course – Part Two

The First Time Manager’s Crash Course Part One and Part Two are out now on Skillshare.

These are the first two in a series of three programmes aimed at first time managers, helping them bridge the gap between the technical skills and processes that their employer (hopefully) is providing, and the leadership skills and insights they need to develop to be effective managers.

This course is for anyone who aspires to manage other people – whether in a formal management or team leadership role, or as a project manager without ongoing human resource management responsibility.

More importantly, it’s for those who have just been – or are about to be – appointed to one of these roles and are a bit anxious about what is involved.

Follow this link to get your first two months subscription for free…

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3 thoughts on “Uncertainty: What To Do When You Don’t Know…”

  1. Dear Rebecca!
    It is always a pleasure to read your posts.
    As so often before, this one resonated very well with me – interestingly enough, it is very well in line with a short video I say recently from Daniel Pink
    https://www.danpink.com/pinkcast/pinkcast-2-18-this-is-how-not-to-calm-your-nerves/ – there’s even a scientific background for it – Pink provides a link to an article from Journal of Experimental Psychology “Get Excited: Reappraising Pre-Performance Anxiety as Excitement” by Alison Wood Brooks, which you might find interesting.


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