Why Accepting Uncertainty Is the Key to a Meaningful Life
My therapist recently gave me a questionnaire to assess the degree to which I was intolerant of uncertainty in my life. When I first looked at it I chuckled a bit. Being a therapist myself, I've worked with many clients who were very uncomfortable with uncertainty. In fact, helping my clients learn to tolerate uncertainty and the anxiety it creates is a big part of what I do.
As I sat down to complete the questionnaire I thought to myself, "I know nothing in life is certain and I help people with this all the time. This is not an issue for me." The first time I answered the questions, I answered factually from an intellectual place, but those answers were total bullshit. The second time I completed it I answered from an emotional place, not what I intellectually knew, but what I actually felt. And as it turns out, I'm very intolerant of uncertainty.
Accepting Uncertainty = Less Suffering
I feverishly began scanning my life for evidence of this intolerance, and it was everywhere. I won't take public transportation to work because I want absolute certainty that I will be able to get to the office on time and relying on a system outside of myself doesn't give me that guarantee. Before making important decisions in life I seek opinions and reassurance from multiple people in my life because I am terrified of making the "wrong" choice.
I spent months fantasizing about my fiancￃﾩ proposing to me, something I thought would provide me with a sense of certainty about our future and our relationship, but once I had the ring on my finger I kept looking for more. I wanted total assurance that he was the "one" and that he would love me forever. And while I know that he intends to love me forever and never leave me, that plan might change some day. Not because there is something wrong with him or me, but because life is in constant flux. The only thing that is predictable is unpredictability. Life, in its very nature, is a glorious mishmash of hope, joy, surprises and disappointment from moment of our birth to the inevitability of our death. Resisting this reality leads to constant struggle.
Willingness to Fail Is the Key to a Meaningful Life
What bothers me the most about all of this is that my intolerance of uncertainty doesn't just impair my ability to take the bus, make a big decision, or feel secure in my relationship. It plagues my professional life. I've spent endless hours fantasizing about different directions I want to take my career -- the lectures I want to give, books I want to write, podcasts I want to record, online programs I want to create. And yet, I haven't done any of those things, largely because I'm terrified. What if no one likes what I produce? What if I fail? What if no one wants to hear what I have to say? I keep waiting for some sort of absolute certainty of success, even though every day I help other people learn how to tolerate uncertainty so they can achieve their goals.
Over the past several years I have helped countless individuals clarify their aspirations and take major risks in their careers. I've helped these people face their fears of failure head on, so they can take the steps necessary to achieve their dreams. This has often involved leaving fabulous jobs at companies that most people would give their right arm to work for so they can pursue more authentic paths for themselves.
Humbled, I've watched my courageous clients tolerate the uncertainty of what is to come and leap off the mountain without looking back. Some have found great success with their next steps, while others have not been as fortunate. But even those who didn't get exactly what they wanted have the eternal gift of being able to say they tried. They didn't live their lives waiting for some mythical certainty that will never come. They won't have to look back at life and wonder "What if?" And the failure they did experience will likely help them grow as both individuals and professionals. If nothing else they now know that they can tolerate failure, they don't have to fear it. They jumped off the mountain and they survived.
In general, when there is a lesson I need to learn in my own life, I teach it to others. The majority of the blogs I've written have really been written to myself, because they were lessons I needed to learn. I was tempted to write a blog today about how intolerance of uncertainty has a negative impact on our lives and strategies for shifting it. But instead I decided to come face to face with my fear of uncertainty and take a totally different direction with this piece. I wanted to be transparent and reveal my truth, if for no other reason than that it scares me to do so. I desperately want certainty that people will read this. And not just read it but like it, learn something from it, and share it. I want people to care about what I have to say. And I want certainty that people won't judge me. But I guess I'll just have to settle for knowing that I jumped off the mountain and was willing to tolerate the uncertainty of what comes next.
If you feel like intolerance of uncertainty is a problem in your life I encourage you to ask yourself the following questions: What are you not doing right now because you are waiting for absolute certainty before you act? Who are you holding back from loving? What mistake are you afraid of making? What project are you avoiding starting? You can keep looking for guarantees or you can jump off the mountain with me and see what happens. At least you won't have to keep asking "What If?"