August 27

Dealing With Uncertainty: 7 Signs You Are Doing It All Wrong

You notice a suspicious lump on your neck, and before long, you're overthinking your estate plan and whether the kids are going to be okay. Does that sound familiar? The world we live in is full of uncertainties. It can leave us frozen, unable to function. But putting our lives on hold while waiting for the proverbial fog to lift to reveal an all-clear day is perhaps the worst way of dealing with uncertainty.

The Turner prize

In 2001, controversy erupted over the Turner prize, a prestigious award presented to British visual artists at the Tate Museum in Britain. The Tate chose artist Martin Creed's Work No. 227: The lights going on and off as the year's winner.

The hullabaloo was due to the nature of the artwork. Creed's Work no. 227 was an exhibit of an empty room with white painted walls, where the lights (regulated by electrical timers) switched on and off every five seconds. Period.

The brazenness of the piece annoyed some folks. It prompted one artist to throw eggs at the empty walls in protest (and disgust). When the Tate eventually bought the work of art as part of its permanent collection in 2013, critics were even more miffed. The piece is now valued at around £110,000.

Sidebar: I realize how privileged I am after reading Tate's press release about the acquisition. Unlike the Tate, I haven't needed to fork out a fortune to experience flickering lights. I get to witness these sorts of exhibitions, for free, in the comfort of my home, multiple times a year because, as a household, each of us believes the responsibility to change a flickering light bulb belongs to another.

We have an ever-changing gallery of flickering bulbs, beeping smoke alarms, and dripping faucets. Too bad no art gallery has found it worth their time to bankroll the exhibits around my house.

I digress, though. The point of Creed's art was profound.

Deep art

In changing how the room looks and feels every five seconds, Creed aimed to focus the viewer's attention on the actual physicality of the space. The here and now. To take in the room as-is at every moment: because the room, like life, is ever-changing.

Well, that's one way, admittedly a convoluted and abstract way, of highlighting the fickle nature of human existence. We don't need the hijinks of artists like Creed to understand a fundamental truth about our lives: nothing stays the same. Things evolve. Change and uncertainty are the only constants.

So, in our millions of years of evolutionary existence, how adept are we at dealing with uncertainty?

The short answer: Not very.


For many of us, uncertainty can lead to crippling anxiety.

Life is very short and anxious for those who forget the past, neglect the present, and fear the future – Seneca

The endless loops of What ifs can bring your entire life, as you knew it five minutes ago, to a standstill. What if:

  • The mole on your neck turns out to be something serious?
  • Your child ends up in bad company?
  • There are layoffs at work?
  • The stock market crashes right before your proposed retirement?

These are all perfectly legitimate questions to ponder. However, putting our lives on hold, and going into a freeze-frame mode to consider these questions, is a terrible way of dealing with uncertainty.

I know. Because I have the battle scars to prove it.

An anecdote

A couple of years ago, there were a few repeated mailbox tampering and fraud incidences in our neighborhood. Someone stole my debit card and used it to enrich their life with a brand-new television. It took some time and effort to sort out the resulting mess. The consequences of the fraud were not severe but were definitely irksome.

The postal service advised those impacted to sign up for a pre-delivery postal notification service. They suggested it would be helpful to know what to expect in the day's mail.

So, I did. Now I get scanned image notifications of the mail (covers only) scheduled to be delivered each day. A little peek into the future to know who's sending you mail if you will. What's not to love about it, right? Here's the unintended consequence…

Greetings from the taxman

A few days ago, I received notification of a letter from the IRS (the US Federal Tax authority for those who aren't familiar.) I know of no one on this earth who likes it when the taxman comes knocking on their door, except maybe his family. (I sure hope so—for the family's sake.)

Anyway, that was the trigger for me to get apprehensive. My mind started to race. Did I mess up my tax return? Were we going to be audited? How much of a time suck was this going to be? What kind of financial penalties was I looking at? And other iterations of this theme.

In short, I spent my entire day kicking the proverbial (non-existent) cat in my house and repeatedly checking my mailbox. The mailman—Murphy's law Exhibit A—arrived late in the day. As it turned out, the IRS letter was a standard mailer about a new tax credit that pretty much went out to every taxpayer in the country. Put simply, it was a nothing burger.

Lost cause

By then, though, my entire day was lost. Irretrievably. No one, especially not the IRS, was going to issue me credits for my lost day.

I had simply squandered away a day of my life, in futility, worrying about something that didn't come to pass. Of course, I was plenty relieved by the outcome. But did that justify my spending the entire day on pins and needles?

I know I'm not alone in antics like this. It is much more commonplace.

I've had a lot of worries in life, most of which never happened.  – Mark Twain

Most of us deal with uncertainty by putting our lives on hold. We tell ourselves we'll get back to "normal" programming after the uncertainty is resolved.

Here are seven coping mechanisms we commonly use when dealing with uncertainty. As you'll realize soon, they are all equally bad. See if any of these resonate with you.

Seven common (poor) ways of dealing with uncertainty

1. Curling in a fetal position

You wake up in the morning to find an alert on your phone from your boss about a coworker's resignation. You immediately know what that means—an increased workload for you in the foreseeable future until your boss finds a replacement. "Ugh," you think and go back to your bed to curl back up in a fetal position. And wish you could stay that way forever. Sometimes you do. Meanwhile, your mind is now on overdrive, imagining how crazy your days are going to get.

2. Wishing it away

I once saw a friend (from my dorm days) employ a novel strategy to deal with clutter. Admittedly, we didn't have much room for our possessions. She had a ton of stuff on her bed. When it all got too much to handle, she simply threw a comforter over it. A "now you see 'em, now they don't exist" solution.

Some of us tend to deal with uncertain events much the same way—through denial.

I like denial too. But burying your head in the sand and pretending the shark will retreat is, of course, not a great strategy. It changes nothing. And then, you have the problem of sand in your hair and face in addition to the shark waiting patiently for you.

3. Procrastination

You know you have to do taxes, but you keep delaying the process of starting to collect records. Procrastination simply prolongs the agony because a part of your subconscious is now invested in the tax prep. You cannot be free from the ensuing guilt until the tax returns are filed.

Putting things off, especially in cases where they have to get done at some point, is quite pointless.

4. Checking and rechecking

This is the strategy used by those who can't sit still. Not surprisingly, it's a favorite of mine.

You keep hitting refresh a thousand times on your app to see whether your online purchase has shipped. Or you repeatedly check your mailbox multiple times during the day to see if your letter has arrived.

Of course, if your mind is constantly on alert for something in the future, there is no bandwidth for it to be focused on the task at hand—the one you are supposed to be doing. Multitasking is a myth.

5. Doomsday prophecies

Imagine waking up and noticing a suspicious mole on your skin. A thought crosses your mind that it could be something serious. If you don't nip the idea right away, prepare yourself for a roller coaster ride up a snowball.

That single thought is the spark your mind needs to start running the train of overthinking. Before long, you start worrying about your estate plan and maybe even conjure up images of weddings of your (as yet unborn) grandchildren you may not live to see.

In the meantime, cortisol—the stress hormone—has a field day in your body, elevating your stress level to unhealthy proportions.

6. Emotional fireball

Some people can't deal with things not going their way. But instead of overthinking and stressing themselves out, these intelligent beings overthink and cause considerable stress to those around them.

Letting off steam is great. Just not when it's directed at someone else's face.

7. Seeking reassurance

Asking everyone who crosses your path if you're going to be okay is one way of dealing with uncertainty. before you ask the person across the street if life will work out for you, consider this radical question. "If you don't know, how is anyone else supposed to know?"

Constantly seeking reassurance from others simply puts them in delicate situations but doesn't solve the issue at hand.

The adult thing to do would be to be shoulder your burdens yourself. Unloading your entire life story to those you know (and don't know) is a sure way to alienate even well-wishers.

These were seven poor ways of dealing with uncertainty. So, which one are you? The doomsday prophet, or the fetal curler, or any of the other types described above?

The common thread here, though, is that we are all pretty poor in dealing with uncertainty. But what should we do instead?

The right way

Since life is nothing but a series of uncertainties, and short, we have to find better ways of dealing with the unknowns. We simply cannot be on hold indefinitely. We need to answer the call so that we can move on to better things.

Here are a few simple tips to stop getting jammed up.

Build firewalls

Compartmentalize your life. Building firewalls are not just important but essential for existence. A work problem does not have to consume your home life. If it's a work uncertainty bothering you, permit yourself to stop thinking about when you step out of work.

The known unknown and the unknown unknown

Not knowing is good. It is the twists and turns of life that make it all worth living. Where's the fun in waking up knowing exactly what was going to happen every second of life?

In the (in)famous knowns/unknowns matrix, I'd venture to say most of life falls in the fourth quadrant – unknown unknowns.

Known unknowns

Embrace the unknown because:

When nothing is sure, everything is possible

Train in safe spaces

The uncertainty caused by a life-altering illness or financial catastrophe can be tough to deal with. But those kinds of events don't happen to us every day.

We can train ourselves by learning to respond better to the niggling everyday uncertainties.

Let's say it's been fifteen minutes past the time your friend was supposed to show up. Don't text her ten times asking where she is. Use the time to people-watch. Don't let your natural impatience get the better of you. It is likely to all be okay.

Live in the present

I saved the best for the last. Let go of how you think the world should work and instead focus on what's in front of you. The rest will fall in place. Or not. But that's a problem for later. For now, just be.


In his seminal work, The Shortness of Life, the great philosopher Seneca said:

The greatest impediment to living is expectancy, which relies on tomorrow and wastes today. You map out what is in fortune's hand but let slip what's in your own hand.

Those words are as valid today as they were when Seneca wrote them.

Have you ever gotten to the end of an anxious phase of life and thought, "oh gosh, I'm so glad I spent all that time worrying about it?". Didn't think so.

We all get jammed up when dealing with uncertainty. But life isn't your relaxed middle school language teacher. You don't get retroactive credits for lost time (or grades.)

If you need motivation, remember this:

This, too, shall pass. Maybe like a kidney stone. But pass it will. 



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