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5 Reasons It’s OK to Not Know What the Future Holds

“The quality of your life is in direct proportion to the amount of uncertainty you can comfortably deal with.” ~Tony Robbins

We spend a lot of time in life not knowing.

There are a lot of things that we’re comfortable not knowing. Not knowing a stranger’s name. Not knowing our credit card number or a friend’s address. Not knowing the capital of Vermont.

We’re comfortable with these things because we know there are answers. Even if we have to get on our smartphones for few minutes to find them, we know these things are all facts that actually exist.

But there are lots of other things that we really want to know, like if our decision is going to be the right one, or if a job is going to work out, or if we’re about to be laid off.

What is the best use of my life? What is my mission? These things are unanswerable. There are many things that we simply can’t know.

And while we think it would be nice to know these things, to know the future, I’m here to tell you it’s really not the case. Even if we could know these things, we’re actually better off not knowing them.

Last year, I took a new job in sales. It was a big change for me. I’d been in consulting and legal practice the rest of my career, and while part of my past work had been around growing relationships and coming up with ideas for new projects, I’d never taken a job where I was a “sales guy,” where I would be evaluated solely on my “number.”

When I took the job, I was given a quota that, if I met it, would mean a significant increase in my pay. I was also told that I’d be groomed for greater responsibilities, that I was seen as a likely future member of senior management.

The company has some cutting edge ways of looking at health care expenses and we help millions of people live better, healthier lives. It was a mission that I enthusiastically signed up for.

This is what has happened since:

The company has been through three major restructurings. Several of my peers, including the two people who brought me in for grooming, have either quit or been let go.

The market has dried up for our services, even as we were able to prove their effectiveness with randomized controlled trials. There have been virtually no new sales. This means that I have taken a substantial pay cut and have had to dip into my savings to meet my expenses.

The company has made almost no progress on new offerings, and several current clients have left. There is some encouraging talk of new partnerships and capabilities, but these will take months to implement.

I sold nothing last year and am unlikely to sell much this year. And the most enthusiastic advocates for my development within the organization are gone.

Now the question is had I known all that, would I have taken the job? And the answer is almost certainly no.

But that would have been a big mistake—because I’ve learned so much.

I’ve learned a whole new industry.

I’ve broadened my relationships and deepened my friendships.

I’ve learned to let go of what I can’t control.

I’ve learned that my value can’t be reduced to a percentage of a quota.

I’ve learned to see and address my fears—of not having enough, of having to sell my house, of having my friends think I’m a failure.

I’ve learned to be an advocate for what I need.

I’ve learned to define success differently and to understand better what brings me happiness.

And I’ve had time to explore blogging and teaching about applying wisdom practices to the workplace, and have personally seen the benefits of those practices on a daily basis.

In short, I would not have traded this experience for anything.

Here are 5 reasons why it’s sometimes OK to not know what’s coming next:

1. Not knowing takes the pressure off.

When we think we should know, we get stressed out when we don’t know things. But when we see that not knowing is our natural state, we can actually open into that, into a state of curious detachment, of childlike wonder. What’s going to happen next? Will it be a pleasant surprise, a learning opportunity, or both?

We can see that, in a sense, we can’t know anything. We’ve never known anything. So when the time comes to make a decision, we just give it our best shot. And we know that we can always adjust if we need to.

2. Not knowing saves time.

When you know you don’t know (and can’t know), you look at the world differently. Think of the time and money that we spend on trying to predict the future. I’m a big fan of sports radio. About ninety percent of it is pure speculation on who’s going to win or lose and what that might mean. And the news is no different: the debt crisis, the economy, the next Presidential race.

We don’t know what’s going to happen with any of this stuff. It’s possible just to admit that. Instead of trying to keep up with what all the pundits are saying, we can spend our time doing things we enjoy, like spending time with our spouse and kids. Or enjoying a walk in the park.

3. Not knowing fosters learning.

I wouldn’t have taken my current job if I’d known the outcome. And I would have lost so much in the process. I think we can all point to bad experiences that we would not have chosen—a difficult job, the death of someone close to us, struggling with a health issue.

And yet most of our growth comes from pain. I’ve seen paraplegics and cancer victims smile as they relate the growth that has come from their condition, insisting they wouldn’t have things any other way. Often we only recognize in retrospect how valuable an experience has been.

4. Not knowing brings the joy of surprise.

Of course we don’t want to know when bad stuff is going to happen. But what about the surprise call from a friend? What about the windfall you didn’t know was coming? What about the laughter of a child?

A lot of the joy in life comes from surprise, too. And knowing exactly what’s coming would take all of that away.

5. We have no choice.

Let’s face it, not knowing is the natural state of things. When we want to know things that we can’t know (like the future, or the right course of action), all we create is frustration for ourselves.

I know this can sound like “suck it up, you can’t change anything,” but we really can change a lot. When we understand that we can’t control what happens, we can devote more of our energy to how we respond and what we learn. And we can open to a new sense of ease in the process.

Photo by chema.foces

Avatar of Jeff Munn

About Jeff Munn

Jeff Munn is a coach, writer, and speaker on using meditation as a platform for personal transformation and professional success. You can read his blog at http://jeffmunncoaching.com.

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  • http://twitter.com/motivationMY motivationMY.com

    This is an amazing post! I’m one of those people that needs an answer to everything but I realize not knowing the answers will enable you to experience the unexpected, much like a detour. It allows us to explore new things. Life would be too predictable if we have the answers to everything.

    Thanks for the wonderful post. 

  • Jackie

    This is a really great topic and timely for me.  I am giving up a job that is perfectly good but speaks all about the “known” and it can be very uninspiring when you know year after year and always play it safe.  I have heard the phrase “the prison of the known” and this is so true.I think that embracing the “unknown” is THE ANSWER.  You are so right we really don’t know and that’s ok.  Tying it all together for me is letting go and aligning myself with the energy of the universe/creator/god (whatever you want to call it) and then having the faith to leap into  life’s process. When I live life like this. ANYTHING IS POSSIBLE. 
    Jackie Irvine

  • http://pdxpagan.com/ Summer

    Wonderful insights! I really believe it’s the surprise factor — good or bad — that fosters true growth. Someone wise once told me in the end, it doesn’t really matter what you choose. What matters is that you make choices. Making decisions in the face of the unknown is an essential part of the human experience.

  • http://jeffmunncoaching.com Jeff Munn

    Thanks–I couldn’t agree more!

  • http://jeffmunncoaching.com Jeff Munn

    That’s an inspiring story–thanks so much for sharing.

    Jeff

  • http://jeffmunncoaching.com Jeff Munn

    Thanks, Jackie! Glad to hear this resonated.

    Jeff

  • JB

    Great insights!  In summary, we can’t control what happens to us but we can control our response?  There is so much freedom in letting go of the fact that we actually can’t control all the stuff we would like to think we can control.  I like what you said about finding the ease.  Going to ponder on that today…

  • Jo

    Hi,

    I too am recovering from a spinal injury and can’t care for my young toddler. I find myself in some dark places, recovering somewhat only to relapse again. finding strength to pick ones self up very hard.
    I found both this article and your response emrana very inspiring.
    Can I ask you emrana for any words of advise?
    Congratulations on your recovery. I know it takes true strength. Would not wish this pain or experience on anyone!
    But then again I can see how can be positive too. Has already changed my outlook and decisions I am making for the better.

    Many thanks,

    Jo

  • Estefania Puigdemont

    Love it!!!!!!!!!!

  • Emrana

    Very true ~ great article!!  

    I was totally disabled with a spine injury two years ago ~ and you can add me to the list that focuses on my gifts.  I was already a spiritual person, but having to “reset” and regain my physical abilities took me to some very deep and profound places.  I have grown so much.  And ironically enough, the car that sparked all that?  A Chevy Lumina.

  • Kari

    I try to look at life this way when it comes to negative experiences. You know, I don’t know why that women had to yell at me but I’m sure I’ll find out in the future. I just let it come. Turns out it’s normally to teach me a lesson in life or to become a reference towards sharing my life lessons.

    Who knows why you didn’t get that job, didn’t have things go your way, or anything else in life – but eventually you will know and the ride along the way is worth the wait!

  • Drlundius

    This was so perfect for me today!!!  Thank you :)

  • http://www.wiseatwork.net Susie @ Wise At Work

    Jeff.

    This is such a good reminder for each of us regarding the unknowns that crop up our lives, and work lives. One of Sharon Salzberg’s teachers once called it the “pretense of accidents.” I love the sounds of that.
    I think so much of life is just learning to foster a balanced relationship with ambiguity and uncertainty. And once we do this, so much contentment comes pouring in.
    Thank you so much.

    ~ Susie

  • http://jeffmunncoaching.com Jeff Munn

    I agree, Susie–and when we don’t know, we can keep that beginner’s mind and be open to so many more possibilities.

    Jeff

  • http://www.bradentalbot.com Braden Talbot

    1 Reason Not to Worry about What the Future Holds:

    Happiness, peace, salvation, love, and [insert synonym with any of those words here] lie in the present.

    There is no happiness in the future because there is no future. Plan, set goals, and keep the future insurance policies, but don’t put your happiness there.

  • http://nochnoch.com noch – be me. be natural.

    can i add that not knowing opens up new opportunities?

    when we know too much, we are too focused on what we think is the best for us, and we are prone to over looking other options on the wayside – even though they could work better for usbut not knowing means we are on alert, and we are more sensitive to whats around us, and who knows, it may spark off ideas for our missions and purpose in life which we had never thought about given our wildest imagination

  • Pingback: 5 Reasons It’s OK to Not Know What the Future Holds | professional sidekick | Scoop.it

  • shourya

    Reason Not to Worry about What the Future Holds:

    Happiness, peace, salvation, love, and [insert synonym with any of those words here] lie in the present.