Coping with uncertainty

I wrote this blog a good few weeks ago now, but it’s sat in drafts until I’ve plucked up the courage to post it. Here goes.

So I said I was going to keep this impersonal until I was sorted. I’m not quite – actually I’m nowhere near – sorted but thought I’d share anyway, after all, it’s likely to be a long journey and this blog’s meant to be about me sharing my experiences, however uncomfortable they might be at times. And things are pretty uncomfortable right now.

I did resign from my job, 4ish weeks ago now. And I finished yesterday. I’m excited about the possibilities and opportunities, accepting of the fact I may well have to take an ‘it pays the bills’ job for a while, but also just a little bit terrified that I won’t be able to maintain my wavering levels of positivity. I still haven’t decided whether it was a ‘bad’ or ‘good’ choice, I have ups and downs, but that’s irrelevant now.

I left, two months earlier than planned, for a number of reasons:

  1. Waiting for another job first (the ‘sensible’ thing to do) would mean continuing to feel completely inauthentic, and even dishonest – I felt so much relief in simply telling my boss that I don’t want to be there and it’s not for me.
  2. I had a very honest conversation with my boss, which highlighted how misaligned the opportunities for growth at the company are with how I want to grow professionally and personally.
  3. While some people could say I made a rash and very much emotionally driven choice (I wouldn’t argue with you on the emotion front, but I do know it was from an authentic place), I want to be the person who takes risks, the person who is proactive and makes things happen.

I really struggled with this decision after I’d first made it. While some people lose their jobs, are made redundant, and face difficult circumstances that are completely out of their hands, I actively made this choice. This was all down to me – there’s nowhere to hide.

And in that moment I had a choice to make. To depair, to cry, to beg to keep my job after all, to grab the first menial job I could get my hands on, to explain my decision to others warily and with doubt. Or to embrace that choice. To share it with enthusiasm and happiness, to remain calm in the knowledge I have enough savings to give me time to work this out, to keep smiling, keep meeting people, to stay positive.

If I could go back to that day I spoke to my boss, would I change the conversation? Would I hold back? Would I let logic and expectation and ‘sensible’ hold me back? Or would I hold on to my authenticity, my self-respect and faith that I can make this work?

So what can I share from this experience? Well here’s how I’ve stayed positive despite overwhelming uncertainty:

  • Great quotes and inspirational TED talks. My personal favourite is Steve Jobs’ commencement speech, and I continue to read some of these quotes every single day. But a new quote I’m particularly fond of is: Above all, be true to yourself, and if you cannot put your heart in it, take yourself out of it. – Hardy D Jackson.
  • Music. I never used to listen to music at work. An office culture of headphones and skype/email conversations with colleagues is my idea of hell, but knowing I was leaving I gave up trying to fight it. For my last weeks of repetitive routine tasks, I used music as a distraction and focus to get me through. And it did a pretty good job.
  • Meeting people. During this period of uncertainty there have been times when I’ve felt like I couldn’t face anyone for fear of disapproval. But instead of sitting at home in despair (as I might well have done in similar situations in the past), I’ve dragged myself out. I’ve spent time with friends, family, complete strangers, recent acquaintances. And I’ve been open and enthusiastic with as many of these as I feel I can. I’ve found that most of the time, if you speak with enthusiasm and conviction, that’s exactly what people around you will reflect back. How great is that?

positivity-text

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The truth about choices

everythingisgoingtobejustfineI did a mini-series on decision making a while ago and came across varying opinions on what it takes to be a good decision maker. Except I’m not sure that I truly fully support the conclusions I came to at that time.

My main issue is the distinction between rational logic and ‘irrational’ emotions. Because all irrational means is without logic, yet it’s often construed as really negative. One definition of irrational is ‘Without normal mental clarity or sound judgement’, but where does authenticity fit in with this? Can you make an irrational choice that at the same time comes with emotional clarity and authentic judgement?

Health psychologist Kelly McGonigal did a TED talk titled How to make stress you friend, and right at the end she said:

Chasing meaning is better for your health than trying to avoid discomfort. That’s the best way to make decisions. Go after what it is that creates meaning in your life and then trust yourself to handle the stress that follows.

So maybe logic, aka stress avoidance in this context, isn’t always the answer. Because doesn’t chasing meaning mean being authentic and true to yourself and your deeper values and emotions?

And I guess this also comes back to the question of whether you can have both happiness and meaning. If striving for meaning creates stress, then maybe the choice we need to make is whether we allow this stress to make us unhappy.

If we choose meaning and authenticity and embrace the stress, the discomfort, the uncertainty, then surely this is the only way to find true fulfillment and happiness?

There are no wrong decisions

I was aware of the book I’ve just finished for a long time before I decided to read it. I guess I thought the title said it all, but it’s actually been a really positive and encouraging read, and it’s got me thinking more about whether I push myself outside of my comfort zone enough.

8. Just say yes – you can’t losefeelthefear

(Feel the fear and do it anyway, by Susan Cain)

Often I feel the fear, do it anyway (once) and then be done with it, feel good, but generally I don’t keep pushing the same boundary. It’s like I can superficially do the fear thing, but only for a limited amount of time (maybe that’s got something to do with my introverted energy levels).

A couple of things stood out to me while reading – the key one relating to my usual dilemma: decision-making. We often see choices as black and white, right and wrong, but each option will just lead to different opportunities, no better and no worse in the long run. I find this hard to accept. Being the maximising perfectionist that I am I feel that one path must have even a slightly better outcome than another. But I can’t think like that – the paths are different, there is no good or bad, just one set of future opportunities versus another, neither of which can be known at the time of making the decision.

The other key point that stood out to me was, and at first this does sound a bit mystic, ‘saying yes to your universe’. All this really means is being open to life and all it has to offer. It doesn’t mean literally saying yes to everything, just accepting what comes your way knowing that you can handle it and therefore you really have nothing to fear.

The book’s about being positive and not relying on external things to make you happy. Yes a lot of it could be described as common sense, but I know I need reminding. This is a great motivational read and it makes me want to go out there and take some risks. Because we’re capable of handling so much more than we think we are, and because If you always do what you always did, you always get what you always got, and I want something new and different.

How to make a decision: the conclusions

goodchoicebadchoiceHaving read 7 books either directly or indirectly related to making decisions some common themes have emerged, mainly surrounding compromise and acceptance – here’s what I’ve learnt:

-> Perfect doesn’t exist (but pretty great does) – yes, we all know this, but sometimes I don’t act like I believe it!

-> Accept and acknowledge emotions, but don’t let them control your choices – watch out for psychological traps (and learn to spot the difference between gut reaction and emotional reaction)

-> Don’t over-complicate – do gather information, compare alternatives and outline and rank your objectives, but then stop, step back and make a choice

—> Compromise and be content – it’s all about balance

—> Don’t worry about the future, and expect to make mistakes

—> Do take risks and do stick with it

Nothing new here really is there? In fact it’s pretty much all common sense, yet so easy to forget in the midst of making a big decision. When I next have a big choice to make I’ll be asking myself:

1. Is this option good enough and am I just imagining some non-existent perfect solution somewhere in the future, or does this simply not meet my most important objectives?

2. Have I got all of the information I need to make this choice, and have I considered all realistic and current alternatives?

3. Am I in the right frame of mind to make this choice, and if not, what are my emotions telling me?

Only time will tell if my decision making abilities have improved, but one thing I must remember is this:

Changing our decision sets up a bad habit. It reinforces decision making as an expression of bewilderment and ignorance, instead of wisdom and freedom – Sakyong Mipham

On more than one occasion I have rapidly, and wrongly, panic-changed a previous choice. It’s important to trust that you made the decision based on knowledge, experience and personal judgement, and not simply out of confusion.

Dream BIG

I was on a course last weekend and somewhere near the start we were standing in a circle completing the sentence “If I won the lottery I would…”. I froze. On the spot I didn’t have a clue. What was wrong with me? Where are my dreams?

There are lots of things I want to do in my life, but I wouldn’t want a lack of money to stop me from doing them. There’s very little that I would like to have/do/experience that’s so expensive it would require a lottery win.

I guess I’m reluctant to share my dreams in case they don’t happen; in case I’m not brave or determined enough to make them happen.

be-a-free-range-human7. Escaping the 9 to 5

(Be a Free Range Human: escape the 9 to 5, create a life you love and still pay the bills, by Marianne Cantwell)

This is such a positive book, full of ideas and inspiration written in a really friendly, chatty style. In essence the message is that you won’t be able to find your perfect job, but you could create it for yourself.

It’s about taking action, starting small but actually doing something rather than just sitting around thinking about it (the latter is something I’m very guilty of!). There are lots of case studies of ‘free-rangers’ (basically entrepreneurs who aren’t tied down by location or lack of funding), and the book is divided up really nicely into different sections, the first of which is about dreaming big.

Too often we over-analyse ideas before we even start, which ends up putting us off going anywhere with them. There’s the idea that you have to face reality and have a perfect business before you even start, and, at least as far as this book is concerned, you really don’t.

I guess it’s the same with choices. It’s about trying things out and testing the water before committing to something, rather than just analysing it until you end up either not making a decision at all or making one you later begin to question.

Go with the flow

One of our school mottoes was ‘Destiny is choice, not chance’, and this is something I feel like I’ve stuck to, a little too well. While I do try to take advantage of chance opportunities, I always feel the need to make actively thought-through decisions.

Basically I’m a bit of a control freak.

The following book was mentioned to me through a comment on a previous post, and it was definitely a good recommendation (thanks David Lindskoog). It’s not only helped me to clarify my thinking on taking advantage of chance events, but has also helped to convince me that I really don’t have to commit to long term career goals.

luckisnoaccident6. Coincidence or fate?

(Luck is no accident: Making the most of happenstance in your life and career, by John Krumboltz and Al Levin)

This book basically describes life, or how life should be: trying things out, meeting and speaking to different people, and discovering opportunities through networking. It’s easy to forget how small efforts, such as attending an event or chatting to a stranger, can lead to significant links, connections and opportunities, whether immediately or sometime in the future.

I love the idea of flexibility and ‘going with the flow’; the idea that it really truly is ok to make mistakes, that you can always change your circumstances and goals and that there is no right or wrong answer as long as you’re exploring and experimenting. I realise this probably all sounds like common sense, and it is, but it’s easy to forget. There are some great quotes and loads of great examples of different people’s career paths throughout the book.

One particular quote stood out to me: The question that I hate most that we ask of young people is, “What are you going to be when you grow up?” And the truth is, I still don’t know at age 45 – Michelle Obama. Maybe there’s a feeling that you’re a bit ditzy if you don’t have a career plan, that you don’t care enough about your future and making the most of your talents, but this book has taught me that’s there is no shame at all in exploring your options.

You never need to decide what you are going to be in the future (a great sense of relief to me!). Unplanned events will inevitably have an impact on your career. Reality may be offering you better options than you could have dreamed. Expect to make mistakes.

Reassuring? I think so.

How to control your emotions

I won’t be sharing my New Year’s resolutions, though I have tried to make them realistic enough that hopefully I’ll be able to achieve most of them by the end of the year. I’m already onto reading another book and have two more lined up, so back to the book reviews… (starting to veer towards personal development though still related to decision making)

chimpparadox5. Managing your inner Chimp

(The Chimp Paradox – The mind management programme for success, confidence and happiness, by Dr Steve Peters)

I bought this book based on great reviews on Amazon, and I haven’t been disappointed. A handful of reviewers criticised it for being too simplistic, patronising even, but I just found it refreshingly clear, simple and fun to read. One of my teachers at school used to remind us to KISS – keep it simple, stupid, and that’s exactly what this book does, to great effect.

Steve Peters is a psychiatrist who has worked with world-class athletes. He uses a lot of metaphors, dividing the brain into three parts: the Chimp, the Human and the Computer, and describing the ‘Psychological Universe’, made up of different planets and their moons. I personally find the imagery really helpful for remembering his concepts and advice. A lot of what he says could be said to be common sense, but he explains it in such a memorable and creative way that seems really useful for taking practical action.

Essentially the book is about controlling the Chimp (emotional) part of your brain. The book suggests simple techniques to do this, and also discusses ways to change your thoughts and beliefs as well as your behaviours.

Relating this back to decision-making, what stands out to me is the emphasis on making rational Human choices, rather than irrational and emotion driven Chimp choices. It’s important to acknowledge and accept your emotions and the important things they are telling you, but then to think and act rationally to achieve long term goals, rather than simply acting to remove short term stress.