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When you feel you’re drowning in a world of uncertainty

Updated: Nov 17

Last time we talked about the weird psychology of waiting. And now—also very timely—there’s the very toxic psychology of uncertainty. It’s all around us these days. Just this morning I saw pieces on legal uncertainty around the Presidential election and on economic uncertainties facing the Federal Reserve.


And of course we face tremendous uncertainties in our personal lives. Maybe you’re in a marriage and you don’t know if it’ll work out or if you want it to work out. Maybe you don’t have a job and you have no concept of when you’ll find another one or what kind of a job it’ll be. Or you’re single and who your next partner will be and when they’ll come along is nothing but a huge question mark.


Before I show you how to deal with the psychological effects of uncertainty, let’s understand what we’re talking about.


Uncertainty is not risk. Risk is when you know the odds. When you throw a pair of dice, you know you’re much more likely to throw a 7 than a snake eyes or box car. If you drive, you can look up the odds of getting in a car crash. That’s risk.


Uncertainty is when you don’t know what the hell is going on. So, for example, with the current election, there’s so much uncertainty because we don’t have ways of predicting how a very close vote will turn out. And if there’s legal action, we have no way of predicting how untested judges will adjudicate unprecedented situations. There are too many unknown unknowns.


And psychologically that’s enormously taxing. Try this thought experiment. Let’s say you won a weird lottery prize. A million bucks tax free (yay!) and a hard slap in the face. Now, would you take a million bucks tax free at the cost of a slap in the face? Most of us would, I think. “Here’s your check, and here’s your slap!” Smack!! And you’re done.

But suppose the prize was a million bucks tax free now and a hard slap in the face at some unknown time in the future. Any time at all! Tomorrow. Next year. For a lot of people the uncertainty about when someone would come up and give them a smack in the face would be awful. The stress and anxiety around it would prey on them. They might be willing to take a big cut in the money part of their prize just to get the face slap over with.


So in fact uncertainty is permanent negative arousal. Because we feel we just don’t know what the f—k is going on. And because of that, we can’t talk ourselves down. If you fly, you can figure out your risk of getting into a plane crash: 1 in 11,000,000 per year. You’d have to live six and a half million years before you’d even face 50/50 odds!! So you can talk yourself out of being afraid of flying.


But how do we talk ourselves of our fears around this election? There are no statistics we can turn to for reassurance.


So how DO you cope when you’re surrounded by uncertainty? When, for example, your own personal financial situation is in the toilet and there’s no way to calculate the odds of turning things around.


First, focus on what you can do, not what you don’t have. If you don’t know, if you’re flying blind, well, so be it. If there’s something you can do, then just do it. Work in whatever looks like it may be a positive direction, even if you’re not sure. And let go as soon as possible of thinking about your ignorance. That’s how toddlers learn to walk. They’re smart enough not to think about all the stuff they don’t know about and all the ways they could get into trouble. They just walk and fall and walk and fall till they get it right. When you don’t know what else to do, that’s perfect.


Second, understand that while you may not know much, you probably know a lot more than you think you do. When we’re all stressed out by uncertainty, we get overwhelmed by all the things we think we don’t know. Okay, so the thing to do, instead, is to focus on what you do know. For example, the person you’re involved with may or not be interested in you. You just can’t tell. But are you interested in them? Check. Will you up your odds of getting the other person interested if you’re charming and upbeat without being clingy? Check! Well, there you are. Boom!, you have a plan.


Third, if you can’t control something and you don’t know anything about it, let it go. For example, I just read that it’s possible that a super-giant solar flare might, just might, reach out its fiery tongue and burn our Earth to a crisp at any moment! But we have no idea when or if that’ll happen. It’s not a risk. It’s a possibility. So what should we do with this interesting piece of knowledge? There’s nothing we can do about it and no way we can predict it. So forget about it! However true it may be, it’s utterly useless.

In the end, then, it’s pretty simple. To deal with the terrifying cloud of uncertainty, just

  • do what you can do,

  • use what you know, and

  • let go of what you can’t control.

That’s what the smart folks do. You can do it too.

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