Miscellaneous

4 Ways To Embrace Uncertainty And Ambiguity

Life is always uncertain — but the pandemic and the current political climate have obliterated many of the foundations on which we used to rely. Now we swim in a sea of unanswerable questions:

  • Will we be infected by Covid-19 and if so, will we infect others?
  • Will our employer survive or will its survival depend on cutting our jobs?
  • Will the new government be able to tackle the enormous problems of ending the pandemic and restoring jobs and economic growth?

Psychological research reveals that such uncertainty raises our anxiety more than certainty of a negative outcome. According to the Boston Globe, new research reveals that a problem with an unclear outcome prompts people to “slow the rush to judgement” rather than jump to a conclusion in order to reduce the stress of uncertainty.

Yet slowing down and reaching for a better answer flies in the face of how many professionals see themselves.

For example, the Globe described a study of medical students who became much more comfortable with ambiguity after training from mentors who introduced the idea that there “is no one right way to treat a patient.” After the training, the students strongly agreed that it was fine to say ‘I need to look this up’ or ‘I don’t know the answer right now.’

Here are the four things that will help you become more effective in these trying times. 

1. Stop fighting the anxiety you feel by not knowing. 

The current high level of uncertainty should humble anyone who has too high an opinion of their ability to control things.

As I wrote this month, some time in the last few years I realized that I could free myself from such unrealistically high expectations. I find it extremely liberating to be able to share with others that I do not know the answer to their questions. 

This admission of ignorance improves my relationships with those who ask the question. It also makes me feel compelled to offer to find them possible answers to the question — either by doing my own research and getting back to them or finding another person who is in a better position to answer the question. 

The best approach to high uncertainty and ambiguity is to admit that it makes you uncomfortable and anxious. Once you share those emotions with others, you remove some of the pressure that may be keeping you from thinking about what to do about the situations that are prompting these emotions. 

2. Start thinking about what you are aiming to accomplish. 

The first thing to think about is what you want to accomplish. You may want to take steps to improve your financial security — such as taking on a side project to your main job. Perhaps you want to improve your physical security by finding a less densely populated place to live. Or you might conclude that you’re dissatisfied with your work and need to find a more meaningful career.

You should try to set up a board of advisors — people who have achieved the goals you seek to accomplish and who know you well. Ask them whether your goals are realistic, whether they have suggestions on how you ought to proceed, and whether you can ask them for advice as you brainstorm possible courses of action.

3. Brainstorm broadly about possible solutions. 

Once you decide on your goal, you ought to consider many possible ways to achieve the goal. One thing that might loosen up your thinking is to start with some wildly ambitious possible solutions. While you might lack the skills needed to achieve those ambitious solutions, you might be able to find a partner with complementary skills who can make that goal easier to reach.

4. Try the option that best fits your goals — but change course based on results.

Finally, you should try one or two of the options that you think are best and keep your eye on whether or not they are working. If one of the options runs into an unexpected roadblock, it might be obvious how to overcome the problem.

Or you might have no idea how to solve the dilemma. In that case, you could stop and mull over the problem for a while. I often find that when I encounter problems that I can’t solve right away, a solution often pops into my head when I am doing other things — especially exercising.

In general, these four steps will help you to deal more effectively with the high level of uncertainty and ambiguity in today’s world. Ultimately you’ll achieve the best results if you accept your imperfections and emotions and get help in skill areas that are essential to achieving your goals.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.

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