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How Are you Dealing with Uncertainty?

A little over 20 years ago in another phase of my life (or should I say in my “previous life”, as it seems so far away), I served as the business development manager in a number of early-stage technology companies, in the technology-transfer entity of the Hebrew University, and as a consultant for some brilliant innovators for cutting-edge ideas. It was my job to help the CEO make presentations to venture-capital or “angel” funds.

We would work days on end in preparing the presentation, to fine-tune it all for the “presentation hour”. One time I recall that I made the presentation which seemed to have gone well and then I opened it up for questions. I could not believe the barrage of comments and questions that were coming at us: Come back to us when you will have the prototype be ready for testing…Why don’t you have a full management team if the technology is so good?…Why is your idea better than the competition…When do we estimate the first sales?…and so on, and so forth. And then after that they would go on and say how they are not interested in “only investing” but want to “help us” with their vast experience and “brilliant minds”…in the end, of course, they did not invest a cent and just kept asking for more information for weeks on end.

I remember asking a friend of mine who worked for the venture-capital firm:”Why all the drawn-out processes, questions and “due diligence”- aren’t you guys by definition investing in “new ventures”? Don’t you know that such tiny ventures often don’t have those answers? He answered: “We just want to mitigate the risk. We hate risk, all investors hate risk.” I then queried: “You say you specialize in early-stage projects, isn’t risk just an inherent part of that?”. His answer: “Not really. We say that but we will always look for the least risky project to get involved with”. I got the picture…

Life is full of uncertainty

From time to time we hear about Silicon Valley giants who are investing to find ways to “cure death”. It sounds outrageous but it is really only a logical outgrowth of our mindset that wants to live here as if we will be here “forever”. We are not actually taught this verbally but it is “in the air”- we pride ourselves on our “risk management ability”, have meetings and produce copious report to “ensure results”, maintain a “risk-averse” mindset wherever possible- to pretend that we have it “all down”.

It is all understandable, of course. We crave certainty and cringe from uncertainty. Author David Rock writes in Your Brain at Work: “The brain craves certainty. A sense of uncertainty about the future and feeling out of control both generate strong limbic system responses.” We need to cultivate this illusion that we control events, even though we know deep down that the bottom line is that in all the “big stuff” in life we just don’t run the show. Nobody reading this, including me who is writing this, has any idea when our time will come to depart this world, nor do we have an iota of certainty how healthy we will be down the road. And you can just take it from here.

Where does it all lead to? I don’t know about you, but for me if we don’t learn to deal with uncertainty in a very real AND philosophical way we will always be on the losing side. Eventually uncertainty just catches up with us…we live in a changing world and uncertainty is part and parcel of that. Uncertainty has brought us climate change, 9/11, the Holocaust, and the list goes on and on. I know it’s a bummer. It would be nice to know what is going to happen, wouldn’t it?

Stories of uncertainty across traditions

I think we can always learn from good traditional stories, as whacky as they may sound.

There is a Hasidic story, emanating from the 19th century that goes like this:

In one of the little shtetls (small towns) there was a policeman who often took pleasure in hassling the Jews. One Sabbath morning, the pious Hasidic Rabbi was making his way to synagogue with his prayer shawl on him when the policeman began to hassle him:”Where are you going Rabbi?”. “I don’t know”, answered the Rabbi. Angered by the response the policeman began yelling at the Rabbi: “It is obvious that you are going to the synagogue, why don’t you admit it and tell the truth?” The policemen decided to put handcuffs on the Rabbi and bring him into prison, for deceit. When the Rabbi was already in his cell, he turned to the policeman and said: “You see I was telling the truth- right? I thought I was going to the synagogue- I certainly intended to- but here I am with you in this prison cell. I never know where I am going”.

The well-known Chinese story of “Maybe so, Maybe not” cuts right into “the inherent uncertainty of life”:

A farmer and his son had a beloved stallion who helped the family earn a living. One day, the horse ran away and their neighbors exclaimed, “Your horse ran away, what terrible luck!” The farmer replied, “Maybe so, maybe not. We’ll see.”

A few days later, the horse returned home, leading a few wild mares back to the farm as well. The neighbors shouted out, “Your horse has returned, and brought several horses home with him. What great luck!” The farmer replied, “Maybe so, maybe not. We’ll see.”

Later that week, the farmer’s son was trying to break one of the mares and she threw him to the ground, breaking his leg. The villagers cried, “Your son broke his leg, what terrible luck!” The farmer replied, “Maybe so, maybe not. We’ll see.”

A few weeks later, soldiers from the national army marched through town, recruiting all the able-bodied boys for the army. They did not take the farmer’s son, still recovering from his injury. Friends shouted, “Your boy is spared, what tremendous luck!” To which the farmer replied, “Maybe so, maybe not. We’ll see.”

And what would “uncertainty stories” be without a Japanese Zen story!

There is a Zen story in which the Zen master becomes ill. He had always been a healthy and vigorous teacher. One of the monks asks him, “Are you well or not? The teacher responds by saying, “Sun-faced Buddha, Moon-faced Buddha.” The Sun-faced Buddha is supposed to live for more than a thousand years. The Moon-faced Buddha lives only one day and one night. The point of the story is that none of us knows what the future brings. All we can do is be composed, be ourselves, and meet our lives fully. We never know whether we have one day to live or a thousand years. In any case, all we can do is be open and present and make our best effort.

Existential psychology and uncertainty

I personally find much wisdom in “existential psychology”, which is to be found elsewhere as well but is often put forth very well in this discipline.

Ernesto Spinelli, a prominent existential psychotherapist and author, has written how uncertainty is an inherent aspect of human existence. He sees uncertainty as a fundamental part of our lives and believes that attempting to eliminate or avoid uncertainty is not only futile but also detrimental to our personal growth and well-being. According to Spinelli, embracing uncertainty is essential for personal development and creating a meaningful life. He suggests that uncertainty opens up possibilities for new experiences, insights, and discoveries. By accepting and engaging with uncertainty, individuals have the opportunity to explore their values, beliefs, and desires more deeply, leading to personal growth and a more authentic way of being. Spinelli also emphasizes the importance of embracing the discomfort that uncertainty often brings. Rather than seeking quick and easy solutions, he encourages individuals to sit with uncertainty, explore its complexities, and use it as a catalyst for self-reflection and self-discovery. Furthermore, Spinelli highlights that uncertainty can be a source of creativity and innovation. In times of uncertainty, individuals are often forced to think outside the box, adapt to new circumstances, and find novel solutions to problems. Uncertainty, therefore, can be seen as a catalyst for personal and societal progress.

Irwin Yalom, undoubtedly the best known figure in this field, has discussed how the “need to take risks” is part of a good therapy session as well as a healthy way of approaching life. Yalom recognizes that uncertainty is an unavoidable part of the human condition. He acknowledges that life is inherently uncertain, and individuals often grapple with existential questions and uncertainties about their purpose, meaning, and mortality.

One of Yalom's key concepts related to uncertainty is existential anxiety. He suggests that existential anxiety arises from the awareness of our limited time on Earth, the inevitability of death, and the uncertainties and dilemmas we face in life. Yalom argues that individuals can experience significant distress when confronted with existential anxiety, as it forces them to confront the uncertainties and ultimate finitude of their existence. Yalom's therapeutic approach often involves helping individuals explore and come to terms with their existential concerns, including uncertainty. He encourages individuals to confront their fears and uncertainties directly, rather than avoiding or denying them. Through this process, individuals can gain insight into their values, priorities, and desires, and find ways to live more authentically and meaningfully in the face of uncertainty.

Yalom emphasizes the importance of creating meaningful connections and relationships as a way to navigate uncertainty. He believes that supportive and genuine relationships can provide individuals with a sense of belonging, comfort, and shared humanity, which can help alleviate the distress caused by uncertainty.

How are you dealing with uncertainty?

There is nothing wrong in moving to reduce uncertainty in life, in fact it is a good strategy to have back-up plans, “insurance policies” and the like. What I am suggesting is that they should not lead us but support us. The idea of embracing uncertainty seems to me to be a much wiser way to go, much more suitable to our natural learning processes, keeping in mind how this world works:

  • Learning to take some steps in an “unknowing mind”, towards acquiring another kind of mindset about risk and uncertainty.

  • Learning to acquire information “as we go” and not “conditional to going.”

  • Making those plans but really internalizing that “real life” may look a lot different down the road and work on our anxiety about that.

  • Remembering the “big stuff” of life and the “small stuff”- that we can learn to deal with uncertainty better by “not sweating the small stuff” so much.

  • Realizing that some risk is essential to find where the rewards are, in uncertainty there are seeds of opportunity. And there can also be much excitement and stimulation in the presence of uncertainty. We need uncertainty to keep us “alive and ticking” in an active and creative sense.

  • Remembering that in the end it is all changing anyway so best to learn to enjoy the ride and not just the destination.

The quest for certainty blocks the search for meaning. Uncertainty is the very condition to impel man to unfold his powers. Erich Fromm

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