The most startling thing about the past decade for me was not the increasing impact of climate change — I knew that was coming. It has been the wellspring of uncertainty in general about the future as we watched political and social environments shift like quicksand, and experienced a sometimes overwhelming sense of uncertainty about exactly how it would all play out.
I often feel I can deal with anything once I know what I am dealing with. But when so much of our everyday world is shrouded in uncertainty, we can find ourselves frozen. Unable to take action. Stuck in a morass of challenges about which we feel impotent.
We’re entering into unknown territory, and many of us don’t know how to proceed. It’s not as if change is uncommon. It happens all the time for many of us: we start a new job, change careers, move house, have children, lose parents. But I have noticed a set of responses to uncertainty which have entered my life that were never there before. I hope that sharing them will give you some relief if you’re experiencing them and feeling alone in the experience.
Over the past few years, these are some of the things I’ve observed myself doing in response to uncertainty:
- Delaying decisions and action; putting things off over and over again because I can’t be sure of the outcome or because I haven’t got any parameters around which to make a difficult decision
- Seeking to collaborate with others because it feels one person’s knowledge and experience can never be enough — even though I know it takes 10 times longer and there are huge relationship-building loops to go through before collaboration is possible
- Delaying publication of my book because the constant rapid change around me forces me into yet more extensive research, until I am completely overwhelmed by how much I want to stuff into it on every subject known to humankind about transformation, change across every system we’ve built
- Investing in and reading more books, doing more courses, looking at more programs, consuming more thinkers, writers and materials
- Trying to find like-minds, like-hearts, other people from whom I can constantly learn who have been there before — no-one has. Although they might be a little ahead on the learning curve of regenerative transofrmation and therefore I gain one more nugget — what do I do with that nugget?
- Collapsing in a freeze every now and then and giving up the potential of a new idea/plan/enterprise because I don’t know if I can do it, don’t know what to do, don’t know what the next step might be, don’t know who to enlist, don’t know who can help.
- Staying in my bubble, my office my home; having less energy to be around other people; becoming more introvert and less extrovert. My Myers Briggs has changed beyond recognition.
I know none of these responses are helpful. Because I am aware of them, they do not debilitate me as they would have done 5 years ago when in the grip of depression. They do not stop me from taking action whereas they did then.
What helps? Once you’re aware of what is happening to you, you can find pathways out of anything. Here are some of my personal antidotes to uncertainty.
- Uncertainty and purpose. Having a clear mission or purpose, serving something that is greater than yourself, a sense of destination — all these things help you manage the uncertainty about the actual journey or the way you are going to get there. Knowing that you are working on an issue or challenge that is deeply meaningful to you can help sustain you and lift you up. It doesn’t necessarily help you avoid its twin nemesis burnout, but it has value.
When you have mission and purpose, you are staying in this place of uncertainty to to serve something you care deeply about — people, planet, animals, life. It is worth it. Remind yourself of those you serve, and that doing whatever it is you are doing – for them — is more important than your discomfort with uncertainty.
- Learning to connect with, and trust your gut. I can’t pretend I’ve cracked this one, but when I do I know it helps. We have three different heart centres in the body. The heart itself, the gut which has two centres. Learning to trust your gut instinct is tough. Especially if you’re someone like me who has been trained to examine all the metrics, the evidence, the cognitive knowledge before you decide what to do. It’s that fluttery feeling inside that says ‘just don’t do this’ or ‘look, stop fannying around and #jfdi’. When I’m at an impasse, I tend to get up and move. If I walk in nature, with only the sounds of birds around me, I can think more clearly. Sometimes driving helps because it’s an automatic function that releases you from other constraints. Maybe you have to sit somewhere quiet, contemplating the question. I feel into my gut and heart, and decide what feels right. I have to trust and just go with it … the real trust is that even if it’s the wrong answer, the sky won’t fall in, I won’t die and I will get over it.
- Embrace the not knowing. Once I was highly paid to be ‘right’, like most consultants. It’s such an ingrained training, it’s hard to let go of. I have tried to embrace ‘not knowing’ … I no longer allow myself to go to the last chapter of a book before I’ve finished it to read the ending which I have always been guilty of through sheer impatience. Not knowing can be a beautiful thing, even though most of the time we really want to know. Having been self employed almost all my life, when I sit back and reflect, I realise I’ve done this naturally for most of my career. Made a choice to set up my own business. Made a choice to move country. Made a choice to change direction in my career. Yes, sometimes circumstances force decisions on you, but in all of those cases I had no real idea how things would turn out. So even though I am older now, and have a sense of ‘less time left in which I can fix mistakes’, I can re-find that confident energy in our current turmoil. Can I take the next step forward without knowing, can I be completely open to how things might turn out? Can I be curious to find out more, without having a fixed idea of how it should turn out? Letting things be emergent and unknowable? Well, sometimes…….
- Living with emergence, unattached to outcomes. One of the things about entrepreneurs, designers, creaetors of any kind, is that they care passionately about what they’re doing. Through years of supporting and coaching entrepreneurs, one thing I have noticed that the most successful incubate inside themselves, is detachment from outcome. I don’t mean that they just shrug their shoulders and say, ‘damn that failed’ but they do not allow their emotions to outweigh commercial sense. They have an instinctive knowledge of when it’s time to walk away from a new venture that just isn’t going to work — no matter how hard and how much has been invested in it. What helps cultivate this detatchment is awareness and curiosity but also knowing how you as a person, and your business, can be agile and adaptable. It is about cultivating curiosity and observance. Notice how things emerge. Seeing how things turn out. Learning from new information.
I learned a lot from having cancer about detatchment. I cared passionately that I would get through it and live. But I knew that if the doctors didn’t know what the outcome would be, I couldn’t either. So I practiced noticing things. Did I feel better if I drank 2 litres of water a day? Did I feel worse if I carried on riding horses or not? How did my body change with each dose of chemotherapy and what would I do to adjust? One step at a time. Emergence.
- Be more engineer. Get information, adapt and adjust. There’s a reason I love working with engineers. I love their mindset. They never give up. They always want to find a way. They gather information, learn when things don’t turn out as they hoped. Adjust. Adapt. Try again. I’ve tried to incorporate this attitude into everything I do and I find it really helps to manage uncertainty.
I am going to launch a new programme for executive women with my Regenerator colleague Laura Storm this year; a 6 month programme to explore the future. I have absolutely no idea how people will respond. But we can still launch it without knowing, and see how they respond, listen to their reactions, talk to them and find out more. We can design a programme, but listen and learn every step of the way, making changes and adjustments as things surprise and delight us. You can apply design thinking to more than 3d printing!
- Build a somatic practice. Years ago when someone first asked me to answer a question by letting my body feel into the answer, I fixed them wth a somewhat penetrating glare (a bit like Paddington) and a raised eyebrow. But. It works. We have just forgotten how to let our body talk, in the same way as we’ve forgotten how to trust our gut. Somatic practice is “the study of the self from the perspective of one’s lived experience, encompassing the dimensions of body, psyche, and spirit.”
Let yourself feel uncertainty in your body, staying with the sensations in the moment — and learn that it’s not a big deal to feel that uncertainty. If you’re pitching for a new bit of business, notice how your body feels before you go into the presentation. You will be feeling nervous, but does your body feel light or heavy? What does that tell you about what the relationship working with this client will be like? Somatic practices like Qi Gong, reiki, Alexander Technique, EFT — all help us observe ourselves from the inside. When we can observe ourselves from the inside, we can learn to watch and observe uncertainty and live with it more comfortably. NB. If this is the first time you’ve heard of somatic practice, this is probably where you think I’ve lost the plot.
- Practice really does make perfect. There is one truly important thing about the philosophy of #jfdi (just f****ing do it). It is building up the muscle of experience. You might fail sometimes, but you will also succeed. If you first learn to notice every time you have even the tiniest of successes, you are building up a mental database of positive attitude. I can. I have. I did. The reason successful entrepreneurs get up and try again is not because they are braver than you or I. It is because they know it’s a numbers game to a degree. The more you try, the more chance you have of getting it right.
This is critical to managing uncertainty. The database of feelings, memories, knowledge you acquire through all the times you’ve tried something through thick and thin, you will develop an instinctive confidence that you will find your way. You will learn to trust that things will turn out fine. Not as you expect perhaps, but fine. Failure is just a way to grow, learn, get better. It’s not the end of the world.
“Walking the uncertain path, let yourself develop trust in yourself to respond resiliently to whatever happens. With this trust, you’ll learn that you don’t need to avoid the uncertainty” Leo Babuata.
- Rituals for when uncertainty strikes. When you start your uncertainty management practice, you’re a beginner. All the above ideas are great, but in practice, you’re going to have a few wobbles. One way to work through wobbles, is by a practice of rituals designed to support these practices. Here’s some advice from Zen master Leo Babauta.
“You might start your day with meditation, letting yourself feel the uncertainty in your body. You might set a focus session for first thing in your work day, where you let yourself push into uncertainty every day, at least once a day. You might set up a weekly review, where you make adjustments based on how things are unfolding. In that review, you might notice how things are going just fine, and let that cultivate trust in the process and in yourself to handle things. You might get a group of advisors and check in with them once a month, talking to them about your uncertainty. Figure out what rituals you need to support your practice with uncertainty, and set them up.”
- Grow your network of support. We all need trusted friends. People on who we can rely. Sometimes to tell us the things we don’t want to hear, sometimes a shoulder to cry on for a little while. Having people you can turn to for help and support is critical to the practice of managing uncertainty. Not as a crutch, not to replace your own practice of learning to be comfortable with uncertainty, but as a source of additional strength. You still have to be the one who acts, who decides, who takes the next step on the path, but having trustworthy friends to carry your bags occasionally, is a source of comfort. They might be a good lawyer or accountant (everyone needs those) or a coach or councillor. They might be part of a group of fellow travellers on the road, or people who are learning a new discipline like you. I have many such groups; my biomimicry buddies, my regenerative crew, my business mates in sustainbility and HR, my Twitter tribe — with whom I share my failures but more importantly my successes. I’ve found you only feel lonely and uncertain when you have no-one to who your success really matters.
- Act. I should probably have put this one at the top. Act. Do something. Don’t be passive. Of all the things I have learned about managing my own uncertainty, this one works best for me. Taking action and finding out what happens — good or bad — is so much better a feeling than the uncertainty of not knowing. In learning, we learn to know. Even if what we learn is that we will never really know. Dig into your vat of courage and just act.
Many people have walked uncertain paths in the past, and are doing so now. Edison famously took 1000 tries before he invented the lightbulb. The first astronaut in space must have been truly terrified — and elated. If you’ve ever seen the sheer surprise on a baby’s face when he/she takes first steps, you know the other side of uncertainty is joy and triumph.
Whatever experts tell you, most of us are making it up as we go along, learning as we go. Donella Meadows once talked about dancing with systems. You can learn to dance with uncertainty with a smile on your face.
With grateful thanks to zen master Leo Babauta whose own article on uncertainty inspired my own reflections today.
This article has also been published on my collective Medium blog Activate The Future.