Certain Uncertainties

by  John E. Smith  |  Self Leadership
Certain Uncertainties

A few thoughts about uncertainty …

People talk a lot these days about uncertainty with regard to our shared economic, political, cultural, and personal futures. Many speak wistfully of an imagined past time when things were perceived as more certain. Life seemed more predictable and known, and is usually remembered as more pleasant than our current realities.

Uncertainty within our memories of times past is often absent or downplayed. We revise our past to make it more pleasant, more simple, more predictable looking back at how things unfolded.

The term euphoric recall” in the addictions treatment arena describes a common tendency among people with addictions to talk in positive and even humorous terms about their past drug use, highlighting the positive while downplaying the negative. Events which objectively involve pain and suffering are presented with some enjoyment, which puts the addict in danger of relapse. We all do this to some extent in our personal and professional lives.

In the business world, the popular acronym VUCA reminds us that life is Volatile, Uncertain, Complex, and Ambiguous. I would not argue with any term on this list or the overall meaning that things are often not stable or predictable. One need only pay attention to the news to see evidence that supports the use of this term.

However, I wonder when have our lives, personal, professional, and public, not been thus?

“Exploring the unknown requires tolerating uncertainty.”
~ Brian Greene (Physics and Mathematics Professor)

My parents experienced a world depression as children, followed by a global war as young adults, then lived on into the tumult and change of the past fifty years, all the while living life, working hard, and raising children. They did not seem unnecessarily deterred by their own personal history of upheaval, change, and uncertainty. They simply lived with an awareness that things can and do change.

So we do not necessarily remember that uncertainty has always been part of our daily lives…

We tend to talk about uncertainty as though it were a special event or trait, present only at certain times and in certain situations.

I remember being uncertain on my first days:  of school, college, the military, marriage, every new job, new church, new house, and too many other things to list. I hoped, expected, and maybe prayed to do what was expected each time, to be successful, to live up to my own ideals. Sometimes this was what happened and sometimes it was not.

Uncertainty is often painted as negative because uncertainty creates fear, which can be paralyzing.

I have had to find new ways to get to work on occasion, because my normal route was unavailable due to human failure or Mother Nature. I have woken up employed and gone to bed unemployed, started a day with my father on the other end of the telephone and ended with him gone forever from this planet. I woke up on a beautiful Tuesday morning in September and ended the day in a restless attempt to sleep and forget the images of that day’s terror.

Uncertainty about a great many things exists on a very personal level for everyone, every single second of every day.

Sometimes we confuse certainty with intention. I intend to navigate each day in a certain, predictable way. Promises are made and obligations formed, based on our intention to live predictably. We try, really we do, to introduce certainty into our personal and professional worlds.

We expect, desire, and try to introduce certainty through our intention that things happen in the way we expect them to … in spite of ample evidence that things do not always happen as we expect.

In actuality, we do not really have a choice about facing uncertainty. Uncertainty just “is” and our role regarding uncertainty in our lives is to simply adjust as well as possible to that reality.  This is not a bad thing …

“The only thing that makes life possible is permanent, intolerable uncertainty; not knowing what comes next.”
~ Ursula K. Le Guin (Novelist)

Uncertainty is often mixed with a delicious sense of anticipation or excitement. This is as it should be and the sensation of anticipation of change is what makes life livable, even with that constant uncertainty.

Our lives would be very bland indeed, if we were not able to entertain some level of uncertainty. Rather than fear and avoid uncertainty, we might do better to embrace not knowing how things will work out.

A question for you to ponder and respond to:

How might you make uncertainty in your life an asset, rather than a liability?

I look forward to hearing your thoughts on “certain uncertainties”!
Photo Credit: Gratisophagraphy

About The Author

Articles By john-smith
I enjoy helping people learn and grow through intentional, strategic, and social interventions. I coach, teach, train, facilitate, organize, write, speak, design, and lead at the intersection of leadership, learning, and human behavior. I am a CCE Board Certified Coach (BCC) with specializations in both Leadership/Business and Life/Personal coaching. My primary blog is The Strategic Learner on Wordpress.  »  View Profile

What People Are Saying

Kenneth Baucum  |  29 Feb 2016  |  Reply

This is right in line with some thoughts I was reading yesterday in Ken Coleman’s book “One Question” — there was a chapter on risk, speaking to how folks usually say they don’t like the “risk” of certain types of decisions, when what they really fear is the ambiguity of not knowing what lies ahead, or the uncertainty of what lies ahead. They say that it’s risk they don’t like, but yet they’re already in the highest risk situation, having put all their eggs in one basket by being employed by just one organization and trusting it for their income. It’s a great book, don’t let me ruin it for you!

Thank you for sharing this, I enjoyed the morning read!

John Smith  |  29 Feb 2016  |  Reply

Hi, Kenneth – thanks for the comment AND the book suggestion (as though I need another title to add to the list:).

Coleman’s book sounds very interesting and I look forward to reading it.

I really like your observation that those who work internally are taking a great risk – this is how we flip people’s thinking to show them different ways of thinking. I often engage with my friends who either still work internally or are frantically trying to “get back in” and you are right – they are eliminating a multitude of possibilities by focusing on a perceived security that frankly does not exist now, if it ever really did.

Appreciate your comments:)


Mary C. Schaefer  |  29 Feb 2016  |  Reply

John, thank you for introducing me to the term “euphoric recall.” Applies to many situations.

Love this: “Uncertainty just “is” – Reminds me of coach, Martha Beck, commenting on a topic like uncertainty. I’m paraphrasing. She said something like, “We long to get back to normal life. There is no “normal” life. There just life.”

Thank you for reminding me of what our parents modeled for us. I didn’t connect it until now. Growing up on a farm, the weather could impact my father’s income on a daily basis. A blight, plant disease or pest infestation could happen any season. It didn’t stop my father from being a farmer for 50 years. Maybe some of that rubbed off on me.

“Uncertainty is often mixed with a delicious sense of anticipation or excitement.” Reminds me of our recent LCG blog theme of curiosity, John, and one of my favorite quotes from Rahm Emanuel. “You never let a serious crisis go to waste. And what I mean by that it’s an opportunity to do things you think you could not do before.”

Thank you for summing up our monthly theme on uncertainty by covering many bases, John. Well done!

John Smith  |  29 Feb 2016  |  Reply

Hi, Mary – thanks for your insightful and enjoyable comments:)

“Farm Strong” as Cameron Tucker might say:) See reference at Modern Family on IMDB: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt3183992/?ref_=fn_al_tt_1. Farmers are among the most risk-taking and realistic folks I know. I especially miss how my current urban life gives me less time to simply and mindfully enjoy a day. I remember long, lazy days, afternoons, and nights where we did literally nothing, but gaze at nature and observe the weather. Makes me wish for a long, soaking rain right now:).

Love the quotes you have shared, especially Rahm Emanuels’s very positive approach to crisis. He speaks to a reality that many of us do not push ourselves to and past our limits until we have to, due to some crisis. Most of the time, the inertia of daily life gets in the way.

When we do experience a crisis, the emphasis too often is on returning to stability or the status quo, althought that is never truly possible. Every little ripple in the Force changes our universe, sometimes in ways we only later recognize or understand.

As always, appreciate your thoughtful and thought-provoking observations, Mary:)


Mary C. Schaefer  |  29 Feb 2016  |  Reply

John, when you wrote, “When we do experience a crisis, the emphasis too often is on returning to stability or the status quo, although that is never truly possible,” it prompted a thought and explained something for me.

I’m working with so many people who have been downsized recently. They did not anticipate it. They are not prepared. It breaks my heart for them. The signs were there. It is certainly not stupidity on their parts, but perhaps as you say, a strong desire to maintain “the status quo, although that is never truly possible.” We all have our own curriculum. We must be there for each other.

P.S. The more of life I live, the more I appreciate my farm upbringing.

IRUSCC  |  29 Feb 2016  |  Reply

Thank you John!

John Smith  |  29 Feb 2016  |  Reply


“Green Acres is the place to be, farm living is the life for me …” (more at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=umS3XM3xAPk)

I think most people want things to go smoothly, predictably, and at a pace that they can handle easily. Too bad life doesn’t work that way:)

Glad there are people like you to help people like me when things go off the tracks and into the swamps …


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