Three Steps to Finding Peace in Uncertainty

Right now is a sobering time to be a planner. We like to fool ourselves that we can predict the future, or at least map out its possibilities with forecasts, charts, and graphs. But the arrival of COVID-19 has been a potent reminder of how little we can say with certainty about the future. With every cancelled event, empty store shelf, accidental touch of the face, or unexpected government announcement, the limits of our planning have become abundantly clear. So it’s no surprise that between our work, our families, and our health, many of us are worrying about the future right now. Clearly plans alone can’t bring us peace.

So when plans fail us, how can we find peace?

  1. Accept that the Future is Uncertain
  2. Act to Honor Your Values
  3. Release Guilt about the Past

Accept that the Future is Uncertain

While the future’s uncertainty might seem obvious these days, knowing the future is uncertain is quite different from accepting it. My wife and I both have elderly parents with pre-existing health conditions. COVID-19 may take them from us early—there’s no way to know for sure. Millions of people have already lost their jobs, and many are already facing fundamental uncertainties about how to pay for food and housing. These are the facts.

Yet from these simple facts we can weave a multitude of stories—some truer than others. About how it will affect others but not us. About how it won’t be that bad (or will be even worse than we fear). About how we can control it with soap and masks (or essays on uncertainty). About how our leaders have already failed us (or that they’re just doing the best they can). About how it’s important to face these facts (or unhealthy to dwell on them). Whichever stories you believe most, in the end they’re just stories. The facts of the future remain uncertain.

So are you still surprised when your story doesn’t turn out to be true? Grief, anger, guilt, sure, those are natural to feel when things don’t go your way. But surprise? When the only the thing the future brings consistently is the unexpected? Behind the surprise often lurks a sense of unearned confidence that our story is 100% right—or fear that it’s wrong. Acceptance means letting go of our story being right or wrong, and accepting it’s just one of many theories. It turns out the unexpected is far easier to handle when you didn’t expect you were right in the first place.

I hope our parents come through this with their health. If they don’t, I fear the grief will be heartbreaking. But I don’t know what the future will bring. I do know that right now they’re fine, making video calls and puttering around the house like the rest of us. When you loosen your grip on trying to control the future, it becomes a lot easier to enjoy the present.

Act to Honor Your Values

Once we accept what we can’t control, we have the opportunity to refocus our actions on what we can. So what should we do? How do you even begin to answer that question in the face of such uncertainty? Often the default answer is to make a plan, but most of our best-laid plans have already come tumbling down over the past few weeks. And none of the plans on the table now are foolproof — all that I’ve seen still involve massive, tragic loss of life. In practice, few plans are foolproof, in or out of a crisis. “Foolproof” implies a control over the future we just don’t have.

So in the end all we can do is try our best—we control our actions (mostly), but the consequences (intended or otherwise) are out of our hands. Just prepare as best you can, and when the times comes do the next right thing. What that right thing is individual because everyone’s values are different. If you haven’t articulated your values out loud, it’s a valuable exercise. Even if we end up doing the same thing, our reasons matter — there is peace in knowing that your actions honor your values, whatever the outcome.

Personally, I’ve been revelling in how easy it is to honor my values right now. In simpler times I tend to waffle: weighing honoring one value against another, debating exactly what action seems right. But for now, safety, family, and community clearly rise above my other values. And the right actions are being broadcast daily through every media outlet: stay at home, keep your distance from others, wash your hands, cover your cough, and don’t touch your face. If only the universe gave us such clear messages the rest of the time! Sure, your values may differ from mine, and obviously these instructions aren’t easy for everyone. But the stakes are very high—life and death. We’re saving countless lives every day with our sacrifices. In a world where our values and ideas of how to honor them are often wildly divergent, this moment highlights a fundamental value most all of us share: self-preservation.

Release Guilt about the Past

No matter how long we stay at home and how often we wash our hands, many of us will lose loved ones to COVID-19 this year. There will be plenty of well-justified grief in the world from that alone, let alone all the other effects of the crisis—and processing grief takes time. But what about guilt?

Given how many of our plans have already been tossed aside, many of us are already feeling guilty for failing to prevent some of the consequences. But how much control did you truly have over what happened? Remember, your plans were just theories that happened to get disproven—we control our actions, not necessarily the consequences. Don’t punish yourself for guessing wrong. Grief may be unavoidable in the face of loss, but guilt isn’t.

Honoring your values helps minimize guilt even in the face of tragic results. So look back at your actions, and ask: did you honor your values in the moment? And if you were fighting for what you believe in, what can you truly regret? It’s the hero’s mindset. Some heroes achieve their goals, and others don’t. Their heroism is measured by their intent and actions, not their consequences. You can’t change the past, so what point is there to punishing yourself when your intentions were pure?

Now, that’s not to say that guilt is always bad. What if you failed to fully honor your values? I fall short all the time, I’m afraid. Even if it doesn’t feel good in the moment, it can be a powerful motivator for positive future change. Instead of beating yourself up, try asking what you can learn from the guilt. Getting curious and leaning into the feeling often helps it pass faster. Ignored, it can linger longer or fester into shame over time.

These tools are especially useful for our current crisis, but they’re also a general toolkit for handling uncertainty in a healthy and useful way. Someday, hopefully soon, our world will become a bit more predictable again. Yet the future’s fundamental unknowability will remain. So take this opportunity to practice accepting the future’s uncertainty, acting to honor your values, and releasing guilt about the past. Despite all our best efforts, the future will always bring the unexpected—better to embrace it than fight it.

Many thanks to the great bodies of work on dealing with uncertainty I’ve cribbed ideas from here, including work from DBT, CTI, CLG, Fred Kofman, and, uh, Frozen II.

Are you a startup CEO, founder, or executive looking to become calmer and more effective in the face of uncertainty? Feel free to reach out, I’m an executive coach and tech veteran specializing in finding permanent solutions to the pain of startup leadership. Learn more and contact me at kberger.com.

Executive coach and tech veteran specializing in finding permanent solutions to the pain of startup leadership.

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