In Praise of Uncertainty (And A Cheat Sheet For Enjoying It More)

Over the weekend, I saw Point Blank, a French action thriller about a nurse at a Parisian hospital whose very pregnant wife has been kidnapped and will be killed unless he delivers to the kidnappers a thief who’s a patient in the hospital.

It was sooo good. Even as my heart was pounding, I savored the twists and turns in the plot and didn’t want it to end.

What’s Wrong With Not Knowing?

Why do we like uncertainty in our books, movies and rollercoasters but not so much in our own lives? And what if we could we learn to like it just a little more?

As the American Buddhist nun Pema Chodron says in Comfortable With Uncertainty: “We can try to control the uncontrollable by looking for security and predictability, always hoping to be comfortable and safe. But the truth is that we can never avoid uncertainty. This not-knowing is part of the adventure. Ask yourself: Do I prefer to grow up and relate to life directly, or do I choose to live and die in fear?”

That’s right, Pema’s calling you out.

Get out of your head.

Would you have been affected by the market volatility this week if you hadn’t read or otherwise heard about it? In other words, did your life change dramatically – did you have to stand in a bread line or scrabble for pennies on the sidewalk – or was it, physically, at least, pretty much the same routine? Uncertainty is a fact of life, yes. Whether you create unnecessary suffering around it is up to you.

Focus on what you can control.

Okay, you probably know that. But are you clear on what’s really in your control? (Hint: it’s a short list.) Draw a circle on a piece of paper: write down the things you can control inside the circle (e.g. your thoughts, actions) and put everything else – you know, the markets, the weather, other people’s behavior — on the outside. Then, just like you keep your dog on a tight leash when there are other dogs/traffic/enticing piles to sniff, train your focus to keep coming back to what’s inside the circle.

Make a game plan.

Have you noticed that you don’t actually have to be in control to have a sense of control? In her book, The Positive Power of Negative Thinking, Julie K. Norem discusses the concept of defensive pessimism–considering the worst so you can plan how you’d handle it.

Instead of letting your mind randomly spin tales of doom and gloom, ask yourself: what are the worst-case scenarios and what would solutions would I come up with? No matter the degree of uncertainty, taking a proactive stance will build confidence in your ability to cope and adapt.

Your turn: share your tried-and-true tactics for dealing with uncertainty in the comments below!


  1. IK August 11, 2011 at 1:05 am

    My inner circle is very short; what I eat; how I exercise, how I treat others,
    and maybe, maybe, maybe most of my emotions!
    The outer circle seems much greater.

    For myself, I tell myself most things are out of my control and that worrying doesn’t
    change the situation. I then find an exercise class. It works for me.

    1. suyg August 12, 2011 at 3:43 am

      Yes, exercise is one of the best ways to distract yourself from uncertainty, isn’t it!?

  2. JP Pullos August 11, 2011 at 6:04 am

    I was given a technique recently which has been really helpful for me in the past few weeks. When something happens that I didn’t plan for and that immediately irritates me, I think to myself “I chose for that to happen.” Now, on the surface, I didn’t actually choose, beforehand, for the unexpected event but thinking to myself, “I chose for that to happen,” provides me just enough of a shift in my perspective to calm my irritation and move forward while remaining in the flow. It’s amazing that the effect is really so subtle and yet, ultimately, so powerful.

    Let’s say my computer crashes on me when I’m in the middle of a big rush job. I can either be a victim of that circumstance and let it put me in a bad mood which makes me inefficient and ineffective or I can immediately decide that I’m in full control and that, contrary to being a victim to circumstance, I can act as if I welcomed the challenge into my life. It puts a whole new spin on it and I’m ready to tackle the problem and the rest of my day with clarity and purpose.

  3. suyg August 12, 2011 at 3:58 am

    Whoa, that is a good one, JP. Especially love this part: “I can immediately decide that I’m in full control and that, contrary to being a victim to circumstance, I can act as if I welcomed the challenge into my life.”

    It’s subtle — and maybe counterintuitive! — but that’s all you need to totally transform your mood/perception, isn’t it.

  4. jenn August 14, 2011 at 6:48 pm

    Thinking that I cannot control external forces but, rather, how I deal with the internal helps. Along with 10 minutes of deep meditative breathing, putting health of loved ones above ALL else, this helps put things in perspective for me…

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