Image by Michael Shannon

Embracing Uncertainty

Aug 1, 2022

A desire for control is a core human trait.  We all want to have control over our environment, control over what happens to us in our day-to-day, and control over our future.

We want relationships that we can influence for the better. We dream about a financial state where we can choose what we want to do with our time and money. We build personal routines that bring us fulfillment.

Autonomy has repeatedly been shown to be one of the single biggest drivers of professional satisfaction. We exert a lot of effort to affect who we work with, what we work on, and our prospects for upward mobility and professional development.

For companies, control over a market generally translates to an improved bottom line. Having too much control can even get you into trouble if the government decides you have violated the anti-trust act.

There is a long-understood link between a perceived lack of control, and depression.  This link has been studied in new parents and in students, and written about in books and summaries. Depression is a complicated subject that can’t be distilled down to a single concept, but the connection is an interesting one.

A lack of control is consistently listed as one of the primary causes of job burnout, with the Mayo Clinic, The Journal of the American Medical Association, and the Harvard Business Review all discussing it in detail.

A lot of the perception about control is just that though – perception. When we demand control in our life, we might in fact be ceding it in many cases.

Imagine you are driving, anxious to arrive at work on time for your first meeting of the day. You are at a red light when the car in front of you just sits there as the light turns green, until you are honking and have steam coming out of your ears. “I can’t believe the idiots they give drivers licenses to these days”, you mutter under your breath. You swerve around the car, give them the middle finger, and arrive at the office already irritated before your day even really begins.

So who was in control? Not you! No matter how much horn-blaring or finger-extending you did, there was no way to make that driver advance pull forward. That driver, unwittingly, had significant influence over the rest of your commute and half your morning.

Now let’s introduce the concept of “embracing uncertainty”.

Before you ever pulled out of the driveway that morning, there was uncertainty about that commute. You could be cut off, there might be an accident that causes you to sit in traffic unexpectedly, or you might be delayed at an intersection. So what does it mean to embrace the uncertainty? And how does embracing uncertainty give you back control?

Embracing uncertainty means recognizing that some things are uncontrollable. Instead of wasting energy and frustration trying to control them, you use your influence elsewhere to compensate and adapt.

To illustrate, some specific examples from the scenario covered above:

  • If you left your house 10 minutes earlier, the green light incident at the intersection would have had no chance of making you late.
  • Planning your day so that you have an hour to check your email, review reports, and otherwise get settled in would mean you didn’t need to experience so much stress over your arrival time.
  • By recognizing you can’t control the driver in front of you, you no longer waste mental energy being irritated. This is of course easier said than done, but you cede that control every time this mental energy is expended.

Genuine, achievable control comes by accepting the existence of uncertainty, and adapting. In many ways, the well-known serenity prayer sums this concept up perfectly:

God, 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.

Reinhold Niebuhr

I’m not suggesting that anyone deliberately give up control. Be ambitious! Work for what you want, make an effort to be successful. Nothing in life is certain though. Accept the existence of “things you cannot change”, and embrace the uncertainty surrounding them.

Only then, when you have given up on exerting the type of direct control that you can’t actually have, can you exert the real, achievable influence that drives genuine personal satisfaction and happiness.