“Have patience with everything that remains unsolved in your heart...live in the question.” - Rainer Maria Rilke
Sitting with uncertainty, thriving within it, has got to be one of the most valuable skills a person can develop. There’s no escape from life’s ambiguity. Everyone experiences the pain of not knowing -- when you’ll die, what others think, what will happen after you take a chance or sustain a loss -- and yet we often try our best to avoid the discomfort of uncertainty. We rush things to resolution even if the resolution is not ideal.
In fact, scientists at the Imperial College of London have found that the anticipation of a negative outcome is so powerful that people would rather take a high intensity shock in the moment than wait for a lower intensity shock at an unknown time. Consider the crazy in that. We will suffer more for resolution, even when we know that waiting patiently in our discomfort will result in a better outcome.
We see this happen in our lives each day. You’re waiting for a biopsy result, so you spend days researching terrible potential outcomes online. Your partner or friend requests time alone and you text them three times a day “just to check in” on how they’re feeling.
Experiencing the unknown is incredibly unpleasant and yet we need uncertainty and need to learn to tolerate it to grow in our lives. If we spend our energy trying to avoid unpredictable situations, it robs us of the chance of disproving our worries. It robs us of the discomfort needed for learning and growing through risk. And it steals our practice of patience, which we need to cultivate discipline for far off rewards.
As Brene Brown says, “There are no guarantees when we step into the unknown. But these periods of discomfort can give rise to life’s most important adventures.”
Here are three ways you can live better, even thrive within, uncertainty:
Have confidence in your ability to handle what life throws at you:
Did you know that approximately 38.5% of the American population will get a cancer diagnosis in their lifetime? 1 out of every 33 babies in the US has a birth defect. Last year 770,864 Americans filed bankruptcy. Sometimes bad things happen to good people. And almost all times those people handle it -- the disappointment, the altered expectations, the personal existential crisis -- and then they carry on with their beautiful lives. You too, will handle it, and worrying about handling it before it happens only makes you miserable and steals your gratitude and strength in the present moment.
Focus only on what you can control:
You cannot make the biopsy result come more quickly. You cannot make someone love you. You cannot take away the source of your child’s fear or sadness. But there are positive things you can do while you live within the discomfort of uncertainty. Find those things. You can control your perspective, your generosity, your exercise habits or mindfulness. Work on things you can improve in the moment, so that you can better manage whatever the end of uncertainty brings.
Make friends with the discomfort:
Discomfort, like failure, needs to be your friend. Both of these unpleasant experiences build your strength and discipline, which you can then apply to living the life you desire. Tony Robbins is right when he says, “The quality of your life is in direct proportion to the amount of uncertainty you can comfortably deal with.” This is because otherwise, if we avoid failure, risk and uncertainty, our lives suffer because rewards are on the other side of these challenges. No pain, no gain. No risk, no reward.
Just as you cheat yourself if you skip to the last chapter of a book half way through, so you cheat yourself when you rush to resolve uncertainty in the story of your own life. Living with uncertainty is a necessity if you want to live a full, and fulfilling, life. The next time life makes you wait in a terrible stew of ambivalence, see it as practice and lean in. You can handle uncertainty. And you can handle whatever comes afterwards.