Don’t let uncertainty paralyse you. Get your mind into the right space to take the necessary action.
During any crisis, we need to stay in a positive state of mind. Positivity breeds boldness and in a time of crisis it is boldness that we need to help us get out of a negative state of mind and face our fears and as Joseph Campbell once wrote, “it is the cave that we fear that holds the treasure we desire”.
Now don’t get me wrong, I am not saying you should just go out there and take risks and not fear the virus but we have to be pragmatic about what is currently happening and that the virus is there, it is affecting our lives and we should take the necessary precautions but we also need to find new ways to survive, especially for our businesses.
Don’t let uncertainty paralyse you. The interesting thing is that pre COVID 19 we had been leading uncertain lives, not knowing what the next day had in store for us. Yes, we might have had a plan or things we knew we would be doing but it was still uncertain. And it is this uncertainty that made life interesting. However, for most of us, we found ourselves just towing the line and moving with the flow, almost directionless and then COVID19 came and disrupted what seemed certain. But here’s the kicker, at least now the world is able to reset in some sort of way and this resetting, is the universes way of providing a new kind of direction. A direction that allows us to see new opportunities, new threats, new weaknesses, and most importantly new strengths. Strengths that we never knew we possessed.
While there are some that are proactive in trying to find new ways, some of us are still in a state of shock or maybe even in denial of what is actually happening. While, this time and time to come will be somewhat frustrating which could lead us into a state of depression, we need to start experimenting with new ideas, testing the waters and seeing if these ideas can meet the new needs and wants of our customers.
Uncertainty will always be there, no matter how much we plan, or think that we will do things in a certain way, the world around us is constantly changing and all this pandemic, this COVID 19, has brought, is a major change, rather than the subtle changes we are normally used to.
Let me put this in perspective, pre COVID19, I was watching a soccer match with my family and some friends and it was a close game and every time a fantastic play was made, fans from that team would jump up and scream in excitement and it was the uncertainty of these events that made it ever so exciting. The point is that life would be quite boring if it were not for uncertainty. No one can predict the future, but if we embrace it in the right spirit then surely, we shall find excitement in the moment of uncertainty.
So, what is that we need to do to get ourselves into the right state of mind, well, firstly we need to make sure we shut ourselves out from the negative voices around us. Whether it be family or friends, or social network or the messages we receive, we need to filter what we are exposed to. And this is exactly what breedingpositivity.com is about, it is to expose you to positivity, to get you in the right frame of mind, while still keeping the virus and what it is doing in our peripheral vision rather than it being our focus. Know that it’s there, know what it’s doing, know how its moving and how it’s going to impact us and those around us, like our customers, our suppliers, our staff, our family and friends, but focus, focus on what we need to do to stay afloat and to keep our business alive. As Edward louis Cole, once wrote, “you don’t drown by falling into water, you drown by staying there”. Don’t be paralysed by the uncertainty of the depth of the water around you, move forward and come up with resourceful solutions to overcome these new challenges.
Let me end with a short story, a story that many of us know. During the late ‘80s Chris Gardner, who many of us know through the character played by Will Smith in the movie “The Pursuit of Happyness”, lived a daily life of uncertainty as a homeless person trying to raise a toddler all on his own and as we read or watched, he didn’t let each day’s uncertainty paralyse him, rather he continued and struggled and pursued, continuously and relentlessly until as we know he made it.
Uncertainty paralysis is a mindset, don’t let uncertainty paralyse you, but rather use this time to open your mind to new possibilities, so that you can emerge victorious and soar like the eagle you are.
Iqbal Thokan is an experienced business management consultant and the founder and co-owner of breedingpositivity.com
Watch the video on this tip on our YouTube page, Breeding Positivity.
It’s official: We live in uncertain times.
Just pick up today’s paper and the headlines are screaming with news that let’s us know we are living uncertain times. Economic instability. Corporate restructures. Shifting tectonic plates.
There’s no doubt about it, uncertainty can be uncomfortable. We human beings are wired to want to control our environment. We enjoy the stability that comes from having continuity between our past and future, a future that is familiar, stable and predictable. We like to feel that we are masters of our own ship, in control of our fate, and so it’s entirely natural to find ourselves feeling a little out of sorts when our future becomes an unknown quantity.
But as much as we may try to do otherwise, it is impossible to chart a certain path through uncertain waters. The reality is that in our fast changing, unpredictable and accelerated workplace and world, it’s those who are willing to embrace uncertainty and take decisive action, risky action, despite the many “unknowns” who will reap the greatest rewards.
When I first left my parents’ dairy farm at 18 to move to “the city” for college, I was part excited, part terrified and completely outside my comfort zone. What lay ahead was all unknown. But as I found then and countless times since, no worthwhile aspiration can be accomplished without surrendering the comforts of the familiar. Only in giving up the security of the known can we create new opportunities, grow capability, build confidence and expand our influence.
It’s a lesson that was reinforced in my interviews with accomplished leaders across a diverse range of fields while researching my second book Stop Playing Safe. While each person had forged their own unique path to success – either up an organizational ladder or as an entrepreneur – the common thread of wisdom they all shared was that in today’s competitive and fast changing workplace, we can never hope to achieve success unless we’re willing to embrace the unknown and get comfortable with the innate discomfort of risk taking.
One of those leaders was Lori Garver, who worked her way up in the male-dominated aerospace industry from an administrative assistant role to be appointed the Deputy Director of NASA. Like so many successful leaders, Lori has always been driven more by what inspires her than what scares her. While it would be convenient to assume Lori was born with a coating of psychological Teflon, the reality is that along her road to success, she’s experienced setbacks, and copped her fair share of criticism. She has just never let fear of failure hold her back from challenging old assumptions and pushing the boundaries of possibility. She’s spent a lot of time outside her comfort zone in the process.
Throughout our careers and lives we must continually assess whether we are letting our fear of the unknown keep us from taking the actions to move us forward. If you’re not sure whether it is, then ask yourself what you would do if you weren’t afraid of failing. The first answer that pops into your head will point you in a direction you need to go, albeit an uncertain one.
Of course, being willing to take a risk and step into unknown territory doesn’t mean everything you try will work out. But as every successful person will tell you, it’s only by being willing to risk ‘miss-steps’ (from which the word mistakes derives) and try something new that you can ever accomplish more than what’s been done before. To quote John F. Kennedy: “Nothing worthwhile has ever been accomplished with a guarantee of success.”
Too often we interpret our failure’s as permanent inadequacies on our part and use them as an excuse to stick to what we know we’re good at. Yet, as Dr. Martin Seligman, the founder of positive psychology once said, “It’s not our failures that determine our future success, but how we explain them to ourselves.” Likewise, if you were willing to embrace the uncertainty that risk entails:
- What actions would you take that you aren’t taking now?
- What conversations would you engage in that you’ve been avoiding?
- Where would you step up to the leadership plate more boldly, and in doing so open up the possibility for new opportunities, new relationships, new alliances, and new ideas to take bloom?
Ten years from now there will be people who have achieved extraordinary success in every field of endeavor. While we don’t know who they will be, one thing is sure – they won’t be people who have played it safe and stuck to ‘business as usual’. Rather, they will be people who have continued to stretch themselves, to forge new ground despite the unpredictability it invites, and to risk failure in the process. Because if one thing is certain, certainty can be comfortable and demand little from us, but clinging to it limits our future, stifles potential , shrinks opportunity and precludes us from ever realizing just how much we’re capable of doing.
Uncertainty can ultimately enrich your life, or diminish it. Embrace it.
Our brains are hardwired to make much of modern life difficult. This is especially true when it comes to dealing with uncertainty. On the bright side, if you know the right tricks, you can override your brain’s irrational tendencies and handle uncertainty effectively.
Our brains give us fits when facing uncertainty because they’re wired to react to it with fear. In a recent study, a Caltech neuroeconomist imaged subjects’ brains as they were forced to make increasingly uncertain bets—the same kind of bets we’re forced to make on a regular basis in business.
The less information the subjects had to go on, the more irrational and erratic their decisions became. You might think the opposite would be true—the less information we have, the more careful and rational we are in evaluating the validity of that information. Not so. As the uncertainty of the scenarios increased, the subjects’ brains shifted control over to the limbic system, the place where emotions, such as anxiety and fear, are generated.
This brain quirk worked great eons ago, when cavemen entered an unfamiliar area and didn’t know who or what might be lurking behind the bushes. Overwhelming caution and fear ensured survival. But that’s not the case today. This mechanism, which hasn’t evolved, is a hindrance in the world of business, where uncertainty rules and important decisions must be made every day with minimal information.
As we face uncertainty, our brains push us to overreact. Successful people are able to override this mechanism and shift their thinking in a rational direction. This requires emotional intelligence (EQ), and it’s no wonder that—among the 1 million-plus people that TalentSmart has tested—90% of top performers have high EQs. They earn an average of $28,000 more per year than their low-EQ counterparts do.
To boost your EQ, you have to get good at making sound decisions in the face of uncertainty, even when your brain fights against this. Fear not! There are proven strategies that you can use to improve the quality of your decisions when your emotions are clouding your judgment. What follows are eleven of the best strategies that successful people use in these moments.
1. They quiet their limbic systems
The limbic system responds to uncertainty with a knee-jerk fear reaction, and fear inhibits good decision-making. People who are good at dealing with uncertainty are wary of this fear and spot it as soon as it begins to surface. In this way, they can contain it before it gets out of control. Once they are aware of the fear, they label all the irrational thoughts that try to intensify it as irrational fears—not reality—and the fear subsides. Then they can focus more accurately and rationally on the information they have to go on. Throughout the process, they remind themselves that a primitive part of their brain is trying to take over and that the logical part needs to be the one in charge. In other words, they tell their limbic system to settle down and be quiet until a hungry tiger shows up.
2. They stay positive
Positive thoughts quiet fear and irrational thinking by focusing your brain’s attention on something that is completely stress-free. You have to give your wandering brain a little help by consciously selecting something positive to think about. Any positive thought will do to refocus your attention. When things are going well and your mood is good, this is relatively easy. When you’re stressing over a tough decision and your mind is flooded with negative thoughts, this can be a challenge. In these moments, think about your day, and identify one positive thing that happened, no matter how small. If you can’t think of anything from the current day, reflect on the previous day or days or even the previous week, or perhaps you’re looking forward to an exciting event. The point here is that you must have something positive that you’re ready to shift your attention to when your thoughts turn negative due to the stress of uncertainty.
3. They know what they know—and what they don’t
When uncertainty makes a decision difficult, it’s easy to feel as if everything is uncertain, but that’s hardly ever the case. People who excel at managing uncertainty start by taking stock of what they know and what they don’t know and assigning a factor of importance to each. They gather all the facts they have, and they take their best shot at compiling a list of things they don’t know, for example, what a country’s currency is going to do or what strategy a competitor will employ. They actually try to identify as many of these things as possible because this takes away their power.
4. They embrace that which they can’t control
We all like to be in control. After all, people who feel like they’re at the mercy of their surroundings never get anywhere in life. But this desire for control can backfire when you see everything that you can’t control or don’t know as a personal failure. People who excel at managing uncertainty aren’t afraid to acknowledge what’s causing it. In other words, successful people live in the real world. They don’t paint any situation as better or worse than it actually is, and they analyze the facts for what they are. They know that the only thing they really control is the process through which they reach their decisions. That’s the only rational way to handle the unknown, and the best way to keep your head on level ground. Don’t be afraid to step up and say, “Here’s what we don’t know, but we’re going forward based on what we do know. We may make mistakes, but that’s a lot better than standing still.”
5. They focus only on what matters
Some decisions can make or break your company. Most just aren’t that important. The people who are the best at making decisions in the face of uncertainty don’t waste their time getting stuck on decisions where the biggest risk is looking foolish in front of their co-workers. When it comes down to it, almost every decision contains at least a small factor of uncertainty—it’s an inevitable part of doing business. Learning to properly balance the many decisions on your plate, however, allows you to focus your energy on the things that matter and to make more informed choices. It also removes the unnecessary pressure and distraction caused by a flurry of small worries.
6. They don’t seek perfection
Emotionally intelligent people don’t set perfection as their target because they know there’s no such thing as a perfect decision in an uncertain situation. Think about it: human beings, by our very nature, are fallible. When perfection is your goal, you’re always left with a nagging sense of failure, and you end up spending your time lamenting what you failed to accomplish and what you should have done differently, instead of enjoying what you were able to achieve.
7. They don’t dwell on problems
Where you focus your attention determines your emotional state. When you fixate on the problems that you’re facing, you create and prolong negative emotions and stress, which hinders performance. When you focus on actions to better yourself and your circumstances, you create a sense of personal efficacy that produces positive emotions and improves performance. Emotionally intelligent people don’t allow themselves to become preoccupied with the uncertainties they face. Instead, they focus all their attention and effort on what they can do, in spite of the uncertainty, to better their situation.
8. They know when to trust their gut
Our ancestors relied on their intuition—their gut instinct—for survival. Since most of us don’t face life-or-death decisions every day, we have to learn how to use this instinct to our benefit. Often we make the mistake of talking ourselves out of listening to our gut instinct, or we go too far in the other direction and impulsively dive into a situation, mistaking our assumptions for instincts. People who successfully deal with uncertainty recognize and embrace the power of their gut instincts, and they rely on some tried-and-true strategies to do so successfully:
They recognize their own filters. They’re able to identify when they’re being overly influenced by their assumptions and emotions or by another person’s opinion, for example. Their ability to filter out the feelings that aren’t coming from their intuition helps them focus on what is.
They give their intuition some space. Gut instincts can’t be forced. Our intuition works best when we’re not pressuring it to come up with a solution. Albert Einstein said he got his best ideas while sailing, and when Steve Jobs was faced with a tough problem, he’d head out for a walk.
They build a track record. People who deal well with uncertainty take the time to practice their intuition. They start by listening to their gut on small things and seeing how it goes so that they’ll know whether they can trust it when something big comes around.
9. They have contingency plans . . .
Staying on top of uncertainty is as much about planning for failure as it is about hoping for the best. Experts at handling uncertainty aren’t afraid to admit that they could be wrong, and that frees them up to make detailed, rational, and transparent contingency plans before taking action. Successful people know they aren’t always going to make the right decision. They know how to absorb and understand mistakes so that they can make better decisions in the future. And they never let mistakes get them down for too long.
10. . . . but they don’t ask, “What if?”
“What if?” statements throw fuel on the fire of stress and worry, and there’s no place for them in your thinking once you have good contingency plans in place. Things can go in a million different directions, and the more time you spend worrying about the possibilities, the less time you’ll spend focusing on taking action that will calm you down and keep your stress under control. Successful people know that asking “what if?” will only take them to a place they don’t want, or need, to go to.
11. When all else fails, they breathe
You have to remain calm to make good decisions in the face of uncertainty. An easy way to do this lies in something that you have to do every day anyway—breathing. The practice of being in the moment with your breathing trains your brain to focus solely on the task at hand and quiets distracting thoughts. When you’re feeling overwhelmed, take a couple of minutes to focus on your breathing. Close the door, put away all other distractions, and just sit in a chair and breathe. The goal is to spend the entire time focused only on your breathing, which will prevent your mind from wandering. Think about how it feels to breathe in and out. This sounds simple, but it’s hard to do for more than a minute or two. It’s all right if you get sidetracked by another thought—this is sure to happen at the beginning—and you just need to bring your focus back to your breathing. If staying focused on your breathing proves to be a real struggle, try counting each breath in and out until you get to twenty, and then start again from one. Don’t worry if you lose count; you can always just start over. This task may seem too easy or even a little silly, but you’ll be surprised by how calm you feel afterward and how much easier it is to let go of distracting thoughts that otherwise seem to lodge permanently inside your brain.
Bringing It All Together
The ability to strategically manage ambiguity is one of the most important skills you can cultivate in an increasingly uncertain business environment. Try the strategies above, and your ability to handle uncertainty will take a huge step in the right direction.
How do your skills measure up? What do you do when faced with uncertainty? Please share your thoughts in the comments section below as I learn just as much from you as you do from me.
“Mommy, I want a rodeo-themed party for my birthday, with cowgirl hats, a horse on my cake, and all my friends,” my daughter announced during our shelter-in-place lunch. “My birthday’s not until summer—everything will be back to normal by then, right?”
My daughter’s eighth birthday is in July. Like many kids, she gleefully looks forward to her party all year long, but I have no idea if having a celebration for her this summer will be feasible in a COVID-19 world. Perhaps mercifully, my daughter is simply too young to understand the scale and scope of the novel coronavirus’ threat—to her, her birthday is the much bigger deal. As much as it would break my heart to disappoint her come July, as of right now, I can’t imagine this party. The idea just doesn’t sit well.
Her birthday is still three months away, and, whether I like it or not, anything that far in the future is at the bottom of a lengthy list of things to worry about right now. Yet my daughter’s request does echo the one question we’re all asking:
How long is this lockdown going to last?
In this pandemic, it’s almost as if we’re living in a collective state of suspended animation. Shelter-in-place or stay-at-home orders, quarantines and social-distancing mandates have all led to a persistent, almost eerie, shared discomfort. Life under lockdown can feel like being adrift on the Atlantic: we’re desperate for any sign of land, yet nothing but an ominous, uncomfortable vastness looms. That vastness is uncertainty itself.
Psychologically, we can attribute this discomfort to anxiety. However, it’s not a run-of-the-mill anxiety, the type that’s normal and even healthy. Instead, it’s a constant state of incertitude, a miasma of apprehension that’s all the more draining because there’s no clear end-date. Our brain craves certainty, but with nothing except vastness in sight, there’s precious little certainty to go around these days.
We’re each attempting to mitigate the haze of discomfort in our own way. Some of us are isolating further as depression sets in, while others are digging into at-home projects with gusto. Some are taking to the streets in protest; others are volunteering or launching fundraising campaigns. Still others are overusing alcohol as a means of dulling the pain. Obviously, not all of these examples are healthy responses to prolonged stress, but they are all manifestations of ongoing anxiety. To help you keep your personal coping mechanisms toward the healthy end of the spectrum, here are some tips to guide you during this unprecedented storm.
Accepting The Uncomfortable
In this lost-at-sea moment, many of us are clinging to the hope of returning to our previous lives. Although some things going forward will (and must) change, for the most part, we’re all waiting for the world to again resemble the one we knew only a few months ago.
As the wait continues, so does our anxiety. As if we’re sailing into a storm, we close our eyes and hope it’ll all be over soon. The trouble is, none of us know when this voyage will end. That’s hard to accept both intellectually and psychologically, but shifting your perspective can help.
Instead of constantly scanning the horizon for some distant shore, one strategy is to embrace this new space and let the present exist, just as it is. You’re on this journey: that’s an undeniable fact. When the ocean’s waves are the most tumultuous, use your own time-tested coping mechanisms to brave the high seas. When the sailing is a little bit smoother, breathe into the positives and relish them. (Yes, there are positives within this lockdown. Game nights with family, long walks with your spouse and rediscovering simple pleasures are all micro-joys.) When gray clouds gather overhead again, tether yourself to the mast; preparing yourself mentally will keep you from being tossed overboard.
Sailing With The Waves
Part of the psychological struggle in the COVID-19 world is continuously feeling overwhelmed or on edge. The intensity of these feelings often comes in waves; sometimes the cresting is predictable, but at other times a powerful whitecap hits us from out of the blue.
A primary function of any emotion is to act as a messenger. When you’re experiencing an emotional surge, take the time to figure out the message behind it. “What do I need right now to feel better?” or “How can I adjust to meet my emotion’s need?” or “Is this a recurring feeling or something new?” are all excellent starting questions.
Emotions are cyclical, and being aware of this can help you manage them. As overpowering as they can be in the moment, their intensity doesn’t last forever—eventually our emotions subside or even dissipate, especially when we listen to the messages they’re bringing. By allowing an emotion to exist in its organic state, you can learn valuable information about your needs.
Avoiding Judgment Of Your Feelings
When we experience unpleasant or uncomfortable emotions, many of us then become immediately guilty—or angry, or frustrated—for having had the “bad” emotion. It’s almost as if we believe the feeling itself was wrong. We tell ourselves things like, “I’ve had it with my manager, but I shouldn’t complain since so many are out of work,” or “Being home all day with the kids is driving me crazy, but I should be grateful we’re not sick.”
Statements like these invalidate the original, uncomfortable emotion. We push our way past the discomfort, hoping to distance ourselves. However, when we speed through an emotion, it leaves our feeling unresolved, which only contributes to anxiety in the long term. There’s nothing inherently “bad” about any emotion (Note: reactions to your emotions are another story, but all emotions are valid) and the art is to allow your original feeling to simply exist without judgment and to become curious about it, rather than whisking it away.
Stop Beating Yourself Up—Use Honest Self-Assessment Instead
As the weeks of mandated lockdown have crawled along, some of us are growing unhappy with who we’re becoming. Maybe you’ve morphed into a quick-to-anger parent or over-controlling spouse. Perhaps you’ve been lethargic, and your lack of energy is affecting your productivity. Maybe you’ve been living in your pajamas for weeks or you’re binging on junk food daily.
Look, this is new to all of us—we don’t have a roadmap here. If you’ve picked up habits or are exhibiting traits you don’t like, offer yourself some kindness. Rather than criticizing yourself, critique your behaviors with an eye toward improvement. In moments when you’ve felt particularly frustrated, angry or despondent, how have you reacted? Which not-your-best-self comforts (like snapping at the kids) have you reached for? Be honest. As difficult as this time is, it does offer you a window into the more complex parts of your emotional self.
Once you lean into your less-than-ideal behaviors, you can then choose to react differently to the emotions underlying them. Just as importantly, you’ll also have the chance to evaluate your landscape as it relates to your needs right now. Many, many things are different amid the lockdown, and it might be time to adjust your self-expectations or relax long-standing personal rules. Or, if you find certain behaviors (like being short with your spouse or stress-eating) are actually making you feel worse—not better—in the overall sense, you can begin taking deliberate, remedying actions.
COVID-19 isn’t going anywhere anytime soon, and no one knows when things will become closer to the world we once knew. Doctors and scientists need time to learn more about the novel coronavirus, and this (rightly) remains a moment for extreme caution, including being on lockdown.
And so, we remain adrift on the ocean. Yet we can still choose deliberate, healthier approaches to managing anxiety and stress as we ride out this wave.
This post is an excerpt from “Unfu*k Yourself: Get Out of Your Head and Into Your Life,” by Gary John Bishop.
Success is never certain. It never comes without risk.
Even if you’re the smartest or the hardest working, there’s no guarantee of anything.
The people who go on to do great things in their lives know this. They also embrace it.
“In any moment of decision, the best thing you can do is the right thing, the next best thing is the wrong thing, and the worst thing you can do is nothing.”
– Theodore Roosevelt
Reflect on that Teddy Roosevelt quote for a minute here. Missing the target isn’t the worst thing you can do. Not taking the shot is.
You may look at successful people and think they’ve always had it figured out. Many of them seem to have a kind of confidence, charisma, or talent that makes everything they do seem easy. They certainly seem to have something you don’t, but believe me, their rise to the top was anything but certain or easy. Most of them doubted it every single day, sometimes hundreds of times per day. That’s right, they sat there, just like you are right now, wondering how they would make it, whether it was all worthwhile or whether they had what it takes.
There were days when they doubted what they were doing. Where they thought, “This is never going to work.” Many found themselves on the verge of giving up at numerous occasions along the way.
They didn’t succeed because they were certain they were going to succeed; they succeeded because they didn’t let uncertainty stop them. They did it anyway. They ignored their doubts and kept pushing forward. They were relentless when the only thing they had to fuel them was relentlessness.
Give some thought to all the people who have achieved something great, only to quickly fade into obscurity. I’m sure you can think of a few, whether they’re entertainers or business people or athletes.
In my career I’ve coached many “successful” people who came to me because their lives had gone flat, and they had become uninspired and tepid. What happened? For many of them, they got comfortable. For years, they had pushed their comfort zones to get where they wanted to be. But as soon as they chose certainty over uncertainty, they stopped achieving. They hit the wall.
Why does it happen? Because when you’ve accomplished one of your goals, when you’re rich and successful, the future naturally seems a little more certain. I’m sure we’d all feel a little more secure with a million bucks or so in the bank.
But that mindset shift is exactly what creates the environment for our ultimate undoing. When we’re no longer uncertain about money, the desire—the need even—to pursue it recedes. When we’re no longer uncertain about success, our ambition can blunt or mellow. We get to wallow in our bloated illusion of certainty. Eventually we get to do that thing called “settle.” We settle for certainty.
That’s the kind of power that uncertainty has in our lives. It can make us or break us. It can make us rich or make us poor. It can be the key to our success or drive us in the other direction.
For many people, it ends up being both.