She said she felt as if she had been treading water her whole life. “What if you stop?” I asked. Either you sink or you float. The very moment you give up struggling with the water, if you’re going to float, you have to put your faith in the water – just lie back and let it hold you up.
from ‘Letters to Sam’, by Daniel Gottlieb
I have been going through an extended period of uncertainty, in several areas of my life. At times I coach clients, who find themselves stuck in uncertainty. As I move through my own uncertainties, I have had time to reflect. The initial response was one akin to loss or grieving. The key characteristic was cycling through denial, anger, sadness and non-acceptance. When our certainties are removed, particularly when the reasons are out of our control, it seems that the mind keeps going round and round with messages like ‘I wish it was still…. ‘ or ‘I must get it back…’ or ‘I hate this…’ or ‘it is not my fault…’. And depending on how unaware we are, this could go on for quite a while.
Psychological and behavioural research suggests that eventually our heart, our seat of emotion, has had the time to work through the ‘loss’ of what was certain before the change. Now we can accept that what once was certain, is now uncertain, it is gone, or it has changed. Now we can move into the emotional roller coaster of uncertainty. We have ideas and see hope, and then the idea does not work and hope is dashed. We do not know which decision is best, since we can not predict the future. We hate risk, which stops us taking a chance, because we could fail… again. Fear of failing seems to be a major barrier for us.
Sometimes when we are in uncertainty, we get lucky and a new path opens up without our effort or forces itself upon us. A bit like winning the lottery. But realistically we also know the odds are stacked against this happening. Is there a more skillful way of working with uncertainty, than hoping for some miracle?
It turns out there is a way, and we are all born with it – all of us, no exceptions. Humans are designed by nature to learn and become competent through trial and error. In other words, we need to make mistakes to become more competent. How does a baby learn to walk? By standing up, taking a step, falling, crying, then getting back up… and the cycle repeats itself. Sometimes we get a little help, but too much help will actually stunt or delay our learning. Nature at her very best! If you can ride a bike, how did you learn to ride a bike? How do you learn to swim?…
Interestingly, for many children somewhere around the age of 6, learning through failure is at risk, and sometimes it gets retarded. Why? Well, there are not too many teachers, parents or principals who seem to promote failing. Failing in school is bad, losing in sport is bad, losing your lunch box is bad, making mistakes at work is bad … And so we start fearing failure. But hang on: nature intended for us to fail in order to succeed? Did she make a mistake?
Getting back to uncertainty – it seems unless we ‘get lucky’, we only have two choices: we can accept and resign ourselves, or we can accept and try something new. Both options are actions, both involve choice. We may not be aware of this, but resignation is a choice and an action, even though this may result in paralysis or inaction. Knowing this, would we make such a choice? I think not. The second choice is to move within uncertainty, towards a new possibility, a new action, which could fail. We have to risk failing. As older children or adults we have to be prepared to fail to succeed! This means we have to overcome the habits and beliefs, taught by unwitting teachers and adults – that failing is bad.
Entrepreneurs understand this – they live with uncertainty. It is said that if you fear uncertainty, it is best to get a job. But nowadays, unlike in my grandfather’s day, there is little certainty attached to formal employment either, and I for one would expect this trend to accelerate into our future. So what does it take? How did I arrive at today, living with all my recent uncertainties?
In my experience three key ingredients are required, to work skillfully with uncertainty: Courage to fail, faith and resilience. We have looked at the fear of failure. It requires energy to overcome fear. The bigger the fear, the more energy is required. Courage overcomes fear, and it comes from the heart (the word is derived from the french word ‘coeur’, meaning heart). And courage in this context is a verb. Courage does not appear out of nowhere – you get courage by being courageous – by ‘couraging’. Courage can be practiced and should be practiced – the more I practice courage, the easier I can muster courage. Try it. Do something courageous, something small. For example, expressing yourself authentically, truthfully and completely with a loved one is an act of courage, because you have to be prepared to be vulnerable.
Faith in this context is different to belief. Faith comes from within, whereas belief is when we follow someone or something else. Faith is knowing deep down, inside yourself, and inviting yourself to declare to yourself, and possibly others, that you are capable of moving forward, of doing something that needs doing. It involves trusting yourself, your human potential. Deep faith and conviction is a powerful force to overcome uncertainty and paralysis. Faith, when declared to others, can be very inspirational, and can allow others to want to support you on your path into and through uncertainty, into action.
Resilience is the strength, stamina and ability to pick yourself up, again and again, when you fail. As we have defined above, the way out of uncertainty is being willing to fail. Failing is not a problem in and of itself – it is a source of learning, growth, insight and can provide the energy to move forward, to try something else. Failing in the absence of resilience on the other hand results in a spiral of stress. As discussed in a previous blog, the true opposite to stress is resilience. Resilience comes from being strong in one’s body (health, sleep, exercise, diet etc), heart (allowing emotions to surface and release), mind (open perspective and diversity and curiosity of mind) and spirit (faith and trust that a situation has purpose and will change).
This was my experience with uncertainty. What is yours? How do you cope in uncertain times. We are tempted to want to control the situation, but soon find we can only control ourselves. And sometimes the biggest first step is simply acceptance. Without accepting that uncertainty and failing go hand-in-hand, we paralyse ourselves, our mind will keep us trapped in excuses and denial and blame and victimhood. The serenity prayer comes to mind:
Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.
Please share your thoughts, insights and experiences with us and our community.