Embracing the ‘uncertainty’​ of life:

Leadership, Manager

‘Change is the only constant… Certainty is a myth’ – Unknown

Look back at the last 24 hours of your life. How much of it turned out exactly as you had predicted? Were there unexpected things that cropped up? Changed your plans?

There have been days when I start my day with a clear plan in place and then a phone call comes in or a new situation emerges, and I see myself moving in a different direction, juggling my premeditated priorities with the new situation that has come up. Somebody has rightly said:

“ Life is what happens while we are busy planning how to live”

Our health (ability to function and engage with the world) is primary to all that we desire. How much of our body’s functions do we control? Ok, we do control how we live our lives, consume food, exercise and sleep. But the last time I checked, I was quite unable to give directions to my heart to beat slower or my kidney to flush out the toxins faster.

Uncertainty and change are fundamental to life and yet most of us are continually trying to make it predictable and constant. A fundamental conflict where the loser is…. obvious. It’s like trying to hold water in the palm of the hand. Death is the final ‘defeat’, where the human being, struggling to maintain sanity, predictability and constant in his ‘world’….just disappears without a trace.

The Corporate world has been built on the edifice of ‘predictability’ and ‘delivering goals’. Rightfully so, as that is how we progress in this world. We achieve desired targets, progress as a team or organisation and create new opportunities for ourselves. Parallely, unexpected situations emerge, priorities shift, new challenges pop up and yet we move forward, modifying our expectations and setting new goals to work on today.

Though we look for stability and predictability, a part of us also desires challenges and ‘newness’ in our lives. I meet professionals who have taken minimum risks and held on to what they had, but seem to carry a void inside them, as though bored of what they are doing, desiring for something different, sensing that life is limited and they have missed out on many eventful things.

Bumping into a stranger, a flat tyre, getting stuck in traffic, losing a job, sudden illness, getting the lottery…. Are they different? Yes, some seem to be harbingers of good news and some are bad news. Nothing is truly unpredictable. The event was creeping on us, but ‘below the radar’ of our cognitive ‘universe’. The tire was worn out but we were not aware of it, the traffic was building up over the day, the industry was slowly going into a recession, eventually leading to a layoff. Life is too large to be encompassed in our limited understanding.

All of us have gained the experience to manage ourselves when unpredictable situations crop up. For many of us, the challenge is with the fact that we start spending time in trying to minimize unpredictability and stay one step ahead of it. So we would call up the airline repeatedly to ensure that the flight is on time. Or keep following up with a team member to check if he is working as per timelines. Looping back to things that have to be done, managed and ‘controlled’.An undercurrent of stress and anxiety moving with us like a constant companion. Many of us (capable in our professions and well educated)are almost obsessive about ‘keeping things under control’.

So why do we fear uncertainty and keep ‘fighting’ to avoid it? Why are our hours consumed in the planning and thinking to ensure things happen the way we want?

The answer may lie in two truths about human nature.

a. What do we truly fear? There is a famous story in the Mahabharata in which Yudhistra answers the questions of a Yaksha to save the lives of his brothers. One of the questions is ‘What does man truly fear?”…. Yudhistra’s answer was “Man fears the unknown!”. We fear that which we do not know. Whether it is a new job, a new relationship or a new gadget, there is an element of anxiety in the beginning, which recedes as we become familiar. Anything that is unpredictable brings an element of stress which we want to avoid. As I sit in the airport waiting to board my flight, I am told that the flight has been delayed by 45 minutes. My first reaction is of stress and a bit of anxiety (which I also notice in other passengers). Some mask it well while others express their frustration. It’s a very normal thing to happen, and most probably the delay will ensure our safety. Yet, it was not expected and so the anxiety. A primal reaction to the fact that the ‘situation has changed now’ and something new is going to happen.

b. People like change, but do not like to be changed: We do not like to be forced into doing things. When something unpredictable comes up, it forces us to do things we had not planned to do. I start to work in a hurry and having reached halfway realize that I left my laptop at home. Now I have to turn around, go back home, retrieve the laptop and again start my journey to the office. Not something I had been planning to do. The boss calls up and discusses an emergency that has come up. “ Leave everything you are doing and please start work on it”… Not a happy situation! (Unless I was hating the work I was doing, and glad that I am out of it).

One would say what is wrong with this behavior? It is fine, but there is a thin line between a relaxed mental state while giving instructions or checking on a flight and a stressed state (fixated on ‘minimizing surprises’). In a stressed situation, we go into a state of ‘Stress rigidity’ where the cognitive or thinking modes get restricted and we narrow our thinking. Not helpful when we want to be in a ‘flow state’, to engage with emotional intelligence and an open mind.

Now, as a counter to the question that was asked at the beginning of this post, imagine a situation in which everything is going exactly as you have planned. You make a broad plan of things to do and everything happens as you desired. The same happens the next day and the day after. What would really be the outcome?

The best that could happen for you would be limited by what you (at your level of wisdom) feel is the right thing. Miracles will stop happening in your life. There is the famous story of the man who was rushing for an interview for a job he desperately needed. He saw a woman having an accident and stopped to help her. He could not make it to the job but became friends with her, eventually finding his dream life partner in her.

True miracles unfold slowly and are not really recognized early. Initially, they may seem like unwelcome things happening to us, which we were wanting to avoid. True visionaries and leaders see the ‘magic’ in the chaos and unpredictability. It’s smarter if we allow ourselves to be humbled by the awareness that a larger force is driving change for the better, beyond our understanding. Can we accept the daily unpredictability and thrive in it? Can we ride the wave, feel the wind in our face and allow ourselves to move into a horizon larger than what we hoped for?

Comments are welcome!

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