Uncertainty is not all bad. Far from it: it can be a gift that forces you to actively write the story of your life.
Imagine this hypothetical life:
You’re born into a well-to-do family. Your father’s a college professor, your mother a partner at a top corporate law firm. You go to college, then a top business school. You have a succession of jobs in New York City and rise to a top position in a big tech company. You also marry a nice man, have three children, and move to a lovely house in Scarsdale, NY.
Sounds like an awesome life, right? And it might well be of course. But, depending on the reasons behind your choices, it could also be an unfulfilling, hollow life. Did you take the path of least resistance over and over again? Did you opt for what was expected and had proved to work for your parents?
Was the balance between the desire to take a risk and the contented security of safe choices skewed toward the latter in the extreme?
Playing It Safe
Every life is already predetermined to some extent by circumstances of birth, such as your parents’ level of education and income, where you’re born (your “zip code”, as they say), your race and gender.
Still, there’s much you get to decide within the general parameters of your birth -you know, what’s often referred to as free will. If you always go for the safest choice, it’s as if the story of your life were basically written for you. You’re settling for the path with the fewest possible surprises, whether exhilarating, devastating or anything in between.
Sometimes life unfolds for months, years, and even decades in this way, and you’re able to keep risk and uncertainty to a minimum. Inevitably, however, there comes a time when life throws everyone a wicked curveball. Unlike in baseball where the choices are either to swing or not swing and the possible outcomes are exactly five (home run, get on base, out, strike or ball), in the game of life the potential outcomes can be dizzying and cause panic.
Uncertainty Equals Opportunity
Uncertainty is always uncomfortable and at times drastically disorienting. But it can also be an opportunity and sometimes a great gift.
On a personal level, I’m convinced I owe much of my personal growth and the exciting experiences I’ve lived to uncertainty.
The pursuit of better opportunities for my family (specifically my firstborn son) led us to leave Venezuela and move to the United States in 2000. The immigration process was filled with uncertainty at many levels: legally, socially, financially.
Our first two years in the U.S. were the most unpredictable from a legal standpoint. We had to decide what to do following multiple rejections to our immigrant visa applications. Should we appeal again or attempt another route? Should we return to Venezuela? Seeing as we are Italian citizens, should we try our luck in Europe? We opted for trying new avenues to obtain legal status in the U.S.
My husband and I also had to rethink our finances significantly and start over professionally. My late-in-life career path was undeniably shaped by the uncertainty brought on by my son’s developmental disability (autism and intellectual).
Not knowing what Diego’s condition meant for his future drove me to learn about and embrace the disability world, to the extent that I decided to become a special education teacher. Thus, at 34, I went to graduate school to get my degree in early childhood special education. Uncertainty surely had a lot to do with my having a job that has partly paid our bills and that I find immensely rewarding.
Having a Say
“Over time we are much more likely to regret the chances we didn’t take than the chances we did,” notes Daniel Pink in The Power of Regret.
The gift of uncertainty is this:
It forces you to be bold, to take a chance, to write the story of your life.
I can never know if the decisions I’ve made in the face of unavoidable uncertainty were the best ones. But they were actively made and I count none of them as a decision I regret.
I’ve gotten to write the story of my life. It may not be the best or the worst life I could have possibly had, but I’ve had a real say in it so far.