Given everything happening in the world today, finding opportunity in uncertainty has never been more important.
Our economies rely heavily on our ability to predict the future. Organisations by their very nature aim to impose order on the complexity of the world to achieve their purpose or strategy. As humans, we find certainty comforting. The feeling of being in control and the knowledge that the path which lies ahead is clear to us gives power and clarity and makes each decision, each action easier to take.
On a day where the US election is a far closer race than many predicted, England and much of Europe is locking down again due to the ongoing global pandemic, Brexit is just around the corner with deal or no deal still open as options: certainty would seem to be thin on the ground. And these uncertain times look set to continue while all of these waves of overlapping change continue to rock our collective boats for the foreseeable future.
In our own minds, we don’t just exist today we also exist in the future we imagine for ourselves. Anyone with a goal or aim in life or work is holding to a fixed point in the future and attempting to make decisions to move from where they are now towards it. And, as that gets harder to do and things become more uncertain, we grow increasingly likely to experience emotions like anxiety and fear and to make decisions based on those feelings rather than logic. As we do this more frequently, our brains push us to overreact and we can unintentionally add to the very thing that triggered us in the first place.
When we evolved this response, it worked perfectly. Think of a caveman entering an unfamiliar area when they 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 in line with the complexity of the world we now face each day, where uncertainty rules and important decisions must be made with minimal information or ability to predict their outcomes.
We all need tools to turn to during times like this to help us accept that, while we can do little to increase certainty we have an approach to finding opportunity in uncertainty while we are experiencing it. Our ability to access some of these is reliant on our individual EQ and our ability to remain aware of, but not driven by, our emotions and shift our responses away from our limbic system.
1. Breathe, reflect, respond don’t react
If you experience an emotional reaction to something, notice that, reflect on it and wherever possible give it a chance to subside before you respond.
2. 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.
3. Try to be sure of what is known and unknown
When uncertainty makes a decision difficult, it’s easy to feel as if everything is uncertain, but that’s hardly ever the case. Take stock of what you know, look for the gaps, and aim to close them.
4. Embrace being out of control
It’s a hard thing to accept but the only thing we can ever truly control is the process we use to make decisions and how we individually respond to what life throws at us. Many schools of philosophical thought (Zen Buddhism for example) have at their core an encouragement to let go and bend with the wind. I find Stephen Covey and his book 7 Habits of Highly Successful People has a good exercise for this call The Circle of Influence.
5. Focus on what matters
Some decisions can make or break your future. Most just aren’t that important. Try not to waste time getting stuck on decisions where the biggest risk is looking foolish in front of colleagues.
6. Nothing is ever perfect
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. Trust your gut
So far you have survived 100% of your most difficult days, and I’m sure learned a lot in the process. Build on this track record by trying to filter out your anxiety or fear reactions from your gut instincts. You may well find you have the answer you need to move forwards when you do.
Bringing It All Together
We’re all human and we will make mistakes and recover from them more times than we can count over the course of our lives. There will be days when we nail it and days when we don’t. Accepting this and finding opportunity in uncertainty anyway is difficult at times but if we can work out a way to do so, periods of uncertainty can result in huge levels of innovation, change, and opportunity.