If you could see a movie of your life before you lived it, would you want to live it? Probably not. The thrill of living is that you don't know what's coming. In other words, uncertainty is what makes our lives fun.
Sure, it's hard to see uncertainty in such a positive light when you are out of work, or when you feel like you're flailing. But uncertainty is really another word for opportunity, and you can't harness an opportunity until you recognize it's there.
My first experience with severe uncertainty was my senior year of college. Not knowing what I was going to do with my life was too much for me to bear. I stopped going to classes and failed intro to sociology, which turned out to be a graduation requirement.
So I stayed in school for the summer, and during that time I learned to cope with ambiguity. I realized that the only way to lead an interesting life is to encounter uncertainty and make a choice. Otherwise, your life is not your own — it is a path someone else has chosen. Moments of uncertainty are when you create your life, when you become who you are.
Uncertainty does not end with the job hunt, though. Every new role we take means another round of instability. Even fifteen years after college, when I start a new job I am nervous. But now I remind myself that I am lucky to be nervous — because big opportunity and nervousness go hand in hand.
Most of us already sense that uncertainty rescues us from boredom. We know, for instance, that when we go to a movie, someone will face a difficult situation and we will get to watch her muddle through it. And we pay for that. You would feel ripped off if you went to a movie with no ambiguity. We like watching it, but in our own lives we avoid it.
This doesn't have to be the case, though. Here are some new approaches to uncertainty:
Live through uncertainty: Some of you work for unstable companies. You do not need to create uncertainty; it is there every day that the company veers closer to layoffs. In this case, ambiguity is something to endure. If you can focus in the face of instability, you are more likely to be able to leverage opportunity.
A great example of people who live through uncertainty is politicians running for office. Right now, the democratic candidates are betting almost everything on themselves and campaigning full-steam ahead even though their success is totally uncertain. With so many candidates in the race, the odds of success are not good, but many of these candidates are able to be at the top of their game in the face of huge insecurity.
Use uncertainty to make yourself shine: For those of you who have no idea what to do next in your life, remember that uncertainty is what allows you to surprise yourself. If you could see each future step along the way, you'd never get the chance to be amazed at what you can do.
When I finally did graduate from college, I went on to play professional beach volleyball. At the time I worried that the decision was crazy, and that I wouldn't make the cut. But in the face of massive instability, beach volleyball seemed like a reasonable choice. Now that is one of the parts of my life I am most proud of.
Create uncertainty: Some of you are stuck in your career. The only way to get unstuck is to create instability. Say to yourself, “Maybe I can change my approach, maybe I can find a new specialty.” In the face of a mortgage or a waning 401K, creating instability seems absurd. But think of it another way: Uncertainty is really another word for opportunity, and each of us should take responsibility for creating our own opportunities.