THE BLOG
02/16/2012 08:13 am ET | Updated Apr 17, 2012

The Gift of Uncertainty

Many people have told me recently that the most unsettling thing about the world right now is the amount and degree of uncertainty we all face in so many ways. A thick fog surrounds us and keeps us from having any clear view of what's next.

Politics has become its own reality TV show, with unanticipated plot turns whose implications no one can guess. The economy is a wild roller coaster of unpredictable volatility. Unforeseen international problems seem to crop up now at an alarming rate, and with challenging consequences that catch us unprepared.

In the middle of all this confounding dynamism that's undeniably swirling around us and keeping us all off balance, there is a powerfully calming and focusing perspective that many of the most successful people seem to have naturally. And it's a point of view that anyone can cultivate effectively.

It starts with what may be a surprising insight: We need to consider the possibility that uncertainty is a gift.

If everything in life was laid out and known in advance, if everything was already understood and nailed down, static and immobile and sure, then there could be no novelty or pleasant surprises. There would be no room at all for creativity, originality, innovation, or adventure. There would be no place for genuine freedom. There could be no chance of attaining any new, unanticipated, unheard of, jaw dropping, astonishing, and deeply satisfying form of greatness as a true personal or organizational accomplishment. Plus, half the things that make us laugh could no longer do so. You'd see any punch line coming a mile away, or more. There are many things, it turns out, that we're better off not knowing. And where there is anything unknown, there is uncertainty.

Uncertainty about big and important things in work and life can affect us in either of two opposite ways, and how we react to it is ultimately up to us. It can, of course, send us into a state of high anxiety and shut us down. Caution itself can come to dominate a business or a life and paradoxically become catastrophic as faith gives way to fear and brings us to a halt. This is all too often the impact that widespread uncertainty has. But there is nothing necessary about this unfortunate reaction. There is another option available. Uncertainty can stimulate us to explore and learn, to be curious and courageous and cultivate a realistic, robust faith, to join hands with others and partner up in new ways, and to use the ancient and fundamental motivating force of hope as a beacon in the mist.

There is a profound truth that should be the lens through which we view the world around us. It's an insight that we all too often forget.

Each of us is a work of art in progress, and so is our journey together. Uncertainty is the canvas on which all our lives are painted. There are small immediacies, close by, of which we can be sure enough, and some larger universal truths that I think we can know, but for the most part, we play out our destinies and do our work against a backdrop of unknowns. And, throughout the entirety of the human journey, we always have.

The world has seen challenging times of heightened uncertainty before, and circumstances far worse than we face now. It's worth using our imaginations for a moment to remember this.
Most of human history hasn't been a walk in the park, or a picnic with champagne. More often than not, this world has been what the poet Keats once called "a vale of soul-making" -- a place of great difficulty where we're challenged to develop the hardiest and most valuable of our potential character traits. The fires of adversity that human beings have faced over the centuries have been the forces that alone could refine, expand, and strengthen their souls. Our ancestors made it through those times successfully enough to allow us to be here now. We have their genetic endowment, and all the wisdom that they had available, plus even more. We can make it through our times as well, and even in such a way as to flourish beyond our greatest longings.

Those who have come before us and done well in times of great uncertainty and challenge have typically found their proper success through concentrating, not on what they couldn't control, but on what they might indeed be able to influence. And they have done seven simple things well.

The most successful people in all of history have known, sometimes intuitively, and sometimes more explicitly, that they should use in all the challenges they faced what I like to call "The 7 Cs of Success." These are ideas that are especially crucial for times of great uncertainty.
In any difficult situation, new opportunity, or ongoing endeavor, we need:

(1) A clear CONCEPTION of what we want, a goal vividly imagined.
(2) A strong CONFIDENCE that we can attain the goal.
(3) A focused CONCENTRATION on what it takes to reach that goal.
(4) A stubborn CONSISTENCY in pursuing our vision.
(5) An emotional COMMITMENT to the value of what we're doing.
(6) A good CHARACTER to guide us and keep us on course.
(7) A CAPACITY TO ENJOY the process along the way.

This is the age-old recipe for success in uncertain environments that has stood the test of time. It will work in our own lives and businesses to facilitate satisfying and sustainable achievement regardless of how the coming election plays out, despite the almost daily vicissitudes of the stock market, and come what may in faraway lands.

A good measure of uncertainty can actually be amazingly fertile soil for implementing this framework of ideas, for success in planting and harvesting the bounty of which we're capable, and even beyond what we might have imagined. Outer uncertainty reminds us of the importance of all our inner resources and nudges us back to the basics of human achievement. We're forced to work smarter and to refocus our energies in dynamic and collaborative ways. And then, great things can result.

It could be that the pervasive uncertainty around us makes the world look a bit dark right now precisely because you and I are here to shine our light into that darkness and help others to see the path forward a little better. Maybe we're here to encourage others to let the uncertainties around them spur them on to new, inventive forms of success, attained with the courage and persistence and faith that have always led the best people to their best results, throughout the entirety of the human journey.

Without some darkness, we'd have no real work to do. Uncertainty allows for heroic effort, pioneering action, and distinctively human achievement. This condition that we tend to dislike, regret, bemoan, and even fear may ironically be the thing that allows us to do and become all that we most admire. And of that, I'm pretty certain.

For more by Tom Morris, click here.

For more on mindfulness, click here.

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