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Why Uncertainty Isn’t So Bad and How to Embrace It

Uncertainty

“When you become comfortable with uncertainty, infinite possibilities open up in your life.” ~Eckhart Tolle

Sitting in the auditorium during orientation, I listened to various deans, distinguished alumni, and student leaders drone on about the rigors of earning a law degree.

There were obligatory mentions of not everyone making it to graduation (or even the end of the first week) and of the intense strain on personal relationships.

But the message I remembered most clearly was about uncertainty.

“You better get comfortable with gray areas. And fast. Because the legal field is not a place where black and white distinctions often exist. If you’re a person who thrives on certainty and absolutes, you will be an extremely frustrated attorney.”

Being a comparative religion and psychology double major, I dealt with ambiguity and the unknown a fair amount. But I wouldn’t say I was comfortable with them.

I mean, is anyone really comfortable with uncertainty?

And with that superficial examination of my tolerance for uncertainty, I trudged onward to lawyerhood.

Unfortunately, I was decidedly uncomfortable with uncertainty.

Although I always wanted to become an attorney, it was a relatively uninformed desire. But it gave me a goal to work toward—a path to freedom and financial independence beyond high school and college.

Or so I thought.

I dreaded going to class. I even contemplated dropping out. A lot.

I worried that I’d lost my academic edge.

For the first time in my life, I didn’t always have the answers when questioned by professors. I wasn’t engaged by the subject matter either. So I procrastinated, which made everything worse.

Looking back, it’s clear I was in denial.

I couldn’t even entertain the idea that law school wasn’t for me, let alone accept that I may be better suited to a different career. You know, admit that I had made a hugely expensive mistake, cut my losses and start over from scratch.

So I did what any self-respecting high-achiever would do: I threw myself into my studies and made damn sure I landed a job after graduation.

In other words, I did whatever I could to avoid the appearance of failure.

Which meant I was a complete and utter control freak. And by control freak, I mean high-strung hypercritical crabby pants.

(I’m sure I was an absolute delight to behold.)

It seems crazy to me now that it took three agonizing years of law school, seven miserable years as an attorney, a diagnosis of generalized anxiety disorder, and a two-year battle with infertility to get me to realize that uncertainty is the only true certainty in life.

Did I really need all that time and heartache to accept this universal truth?

Apparently, I did. The religion scholar in me shakes her head.

And even though I was finally able to acknowledge the omnipresence of uncertainty, I wasn’t immediately able to embrace it.

It took a lot of yoga, meditation, acupuncture, psychiatry, and life coaching for me to see that I hadn’t ever escaped the discomfort of uncertainty. Despite my best efforts.

I busted my butt in law school and landed a job offer before graduation, which was rescinded when the organization lost funding for my position.

I planned out future pregnancies assuming I was a fertile myrtle like all the other women in my family, who didn’t have the rare birth defects I had.

I slogged through my legal career thinking after “paying my dues” and earning six figures I’d finally enjoy my profession, only to feel more and more hopeless every day.

And those are just some ways uncertainty bested me over the last decade.

But thanks to the luxury of hindsight, I grew to embrace the inevitability of uncertainty, and the fruitlessness of trying to elude it.

Yes, I had the rug pulled out from under me when my first job offer fell through. But I found a higher paying job within weeks of graduation, where I met my mentor and some of my dearest friends.

Yes, I endured the agony of infertility for two years. But after corrective surgeries (that also improved my overall health), I became pregnant with a baby girl who has brought exponentially more sleep-deprivation joy into my life than all the despair caused by those years of infertility.

And, yes, my childhood “dream” of becoming an attorney turned out to be a nightmare. But like a bad dream, I finally woke up and realized it wasn’t my future.

Although my current career didn’t exist when I was a kid, I have a feeling that even if it did I wouldn’t have found it by following a structured path.

Because uncertainty is not only inevitable, it’s necessary.

If we really were able to control every outcome in our lives, we’d most likely never experience failure. Or be forced outside our comfort zone. Or discover something previously unknown to us (or the world!) by way of happy accidents.

We’d never truly grow.

So now when I feel the urge to control all the things, I do what sounds incredibly simple to most, but has always been difficult for me.

I breathe.

I realize “breathing” isn’t what most people want to hear. But learning to slow down and focus on my breath has been life changing.

Plus, it’s science.

I catch myself holding my breath all the time. When I feel the need to check in with my breath, odds are it’s because my body is tense from oxygen deficit.

Our brains need oxygen to think clearly. And without sufficient oxygen, the brain goes into fight or flight mode. All too often my battlefield is the supermarket or a blog post—situations in which breath is preferable to adrenaline.

And while I am an advocate for mindful breathing in times of uncertainty, I’m not saying it’s a cure-all for everyone in every situation. But you know what is?

Again, it’s science. Studies show that regularly expressing gratitude increases feelings of happiness and well-being.

I admit I was skeptical when I first learned about gratitude practice as a way to boost happiness. Especially since it advocates keeping a gratitude journal.

I am such a resistant journaler. Which is strange because I’ve gained some incredible insights into my psyche through journaling. (Okay, maybe it’s not so much strange, as it is the very reason I resist journaling. Note to self: Work through fear of journaling…through journaling.)

Luckily, keeping a gratitude journal is nothing like the feelings poured onto page upon page that I imagined. At least, it doesn’t have to be.

My only rule is that I need to write down at least five things for which I’m grateful each day. Some days it takes me ten seconds, others it’s more like ten minutes.

But that’s the point.

Those days when feeling thankful isn’t easy are the days you need gratitude the most.

Someday you’ll probably be grateful for the struggle you’re in right now. But until then, maintaining a gratitude practice will ease the discomfort uncertainty brings.

Even if it does involve a journal.

I sometimes wonder how my life would be different today if someone at my law school orientation had outlined some practical ways of coping with uncertainty—like basic mindfulness—instead of characterizing an aversion to uncertainty as a personality flaw.

Maybe I would have embraced the certainty of uncertainty sooner, possibly avoiding countless hours of heartache and anxiety. Perhaps I would’ve had the guts to drop out of law school and avoid a mountain of debt.

Or maybe everything would have unfolded in exactly the same way.

And you know what?

I’m okay with that.

Man walking image via Shutterstock

About Annie Little

Annie Little is a trained life coach, former attorney and the founder of JD Nation where she helps lawyers regain control of their careers, beat burnout and start enjoying their lives again. You can follow her on Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn. Don’t be shy; say hi!

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  • Judith

    Hi Annie, thanks for this post! If there is one thing I am uncomfortable with, it is uncertainty. Also I regularly forget to breathe and then end up hyperventilating. So, it’s a great tip to try and slow down by focussing on breathing. I will defenitly try that! About the gratitude journal… It’s something that I have been avoiding, even though I read about how great it is everywhere. This year I’m keeping a “positive” journal, in which I write all the things that went well. Maybe I will try the gratitude journal next year. In the meantime, I have to remember: Breathe. Smile. Enjoy!

  • Hi Annie
    Thank you so much for sharing your story and insights. I resonated with so many things you said. Your point about us being able to control outcomes stunting growth is so true..as much as adversity helps us, we would never opt for it given the chance, unless of course you are one of those uber-advanced people who welcome problems as a vehicle for enlightenment!

    I have gotten much more comfortable with uncertainty. A few years back, I experienced some really rough times financially and there was a lot of uncertainty about what was going to happen, but the situation catapulted my personal growth and I ended up attracting wonderful opportunities and making more money than I ever had.

    My study of law of attraction has helped me with this immensely as well. Between realizing the power I have over my life through consciously cultivating certain beliefs and feelings, and realizing that everything that happens helps me move towards what I want in some way, I am much more at ease even when I’m not sure what will transpire.

    Practicing gratitude is huge, and once we make this a regular habit, it can change our world dramatically.

    Thanks for this post and your great insights!

  • Annie Little

    You’re so welcome, Kelli! Thanks for sharing a little of your story. I’m learning more and more about thoughts creating reality and agree it’s so very helpful in times of uncertainty. Especially when paired with gratitude 🙂

  • Annie Little

    Judith, I am a reluctant journal-keeper, too! But I think a “positive” journal is basically a gratitude journal, don’t you? By writing all the things that went well, you’re reinforcing the types of experiences you desire and inviting more just like them into your life. And, hey, any intentional practices are amazing, worthwhile and enriching!

  • Hi Annie, I really enjoyed your post. I also find myself quite often not actually breathing for longer periods, and have found the practice of just focusing on my breath (aside from any meditation, just while I’m going about my day) really powerful. Thanks for sharing your story.

  • Abi

    What a fantastic post thank you. I really laughed at the comment about your particular control freak being a ‘highly strung, hypercritical crabby pants’… I recognise myself in that description and have just laughed at myself which diffused some of the crabbiness! Thank you.

  • Jester2012

    I needed to read something like this based on how my day is going. Long story short I was told I would have to complete another year of college in order to graduate with my Bachelors.

    At first I was upset that my advisors had misinformed me on my progress but I eventually found the good in an extra year and accepted it. Now three months before the end of this semester I am now being told that I am actually graduating this December. I have to complete one extra semester of classes not a full year that they originally told me.

    So I am currently freaking out because all the plans I had planned out over the year now has to be drastically pushed to now. It does help reading articles like yours though, sometimes you just can’t prepare for everything.

  • Annie, that’s a really insightful post. Uncertainty is just something we have to accept – we can’t control everything. Yet it’s one of the top things people want out of their jobs. Which is really dumb when you think about how unstable and topsy turvy the world of work is.

    And we use precious time studying to try and create more certainty where it doesn’t exist by getting qualifications that we think will guarantee success. Fortunately, my business school course was paid for.

    If I’ve learnt anything it is, I beleive, that the things we need to learn are who we really are and how best we serve can others.

  • Guest

    Hi Annie.

    It’s so funny you wrote this… A month or two back I wrote something similar on dealing with the uncertainty of life as I came back from a quarter-year long trip across Europe and faced the question, “How the f*** do I make money and be happy?”. After going through approximately 8 years of becoming an engineer and getting a Master’s degree, I wasn’t sure I really wanted to do it anymore (oops :p).

    Like you I have this huge urge to control things, yet, when you realize you can only control so much you can be so much happier to let life unfold. That, and many times you worry you can’t reverse a decision when many things are reversible.

    I always tend to ask myself “What’s the worst that can happen? How likely is that?” It usually helps put things I worry about in perspective.

    It’s bad when things like perfectionism and control problems combine, because then you don’t want to choose an option for fear of being wrong or it not working out… and then you REALLY struggle!

    But from the sounds of the post it seems like you’ve learned a great deal over the years and are far better at handling whatever life throws at you. Best of luck as the years go on 🙂

  • Noam Lightstone

    Hi Annie.

    It’s so funny you wrote this… A month or two back I wrote something similar on dealing with the uncertainty of life as I came back from a quarter-year long trip across Europe and faced the question, “How the f*** do I make money and be happy?”. After going through approximately 8 years of becoming an engineer and getting a Master’s degree, I wasn’t sure I really wanted to do it anymore (oops :p).

    Like you I have this huge urge to control things, yet, when you realize you can only control so much you can be so much happier to let life unfold. That, and many times you worry you can’t reverse a decision when many things are reversible.

    I always tend to ask myself “What’s the worst that can happen? How likely is that?” It usually helps put things I worry about in perspective.

    It’s bad when things like perfectionism and control problems combine, because then you don’t want to choose an option for fear of being wrong or it not working out… and then you REALLY struggle

    But from the sounds of the post it seems like you’ve learned a great deal over the years and are far better at handling whatever life throws at you. Best of luck as the years go on 🙂

  • Annie Little

    Ellen, yes! Just breathing without anything else is all it takes. I used to think there needed to be some big old production involved. Nope. All we need is more oxygen!

  • Annie Little

    Yay, Abi! I can’t think of a better feeling than when I can elicit a genuine laugh from someone. Especially if you were in a crabby mood to begin with. Hope your day only got better 🙂

  • Annie Little

    Oh man! Isn’t it crazy how life unfolds? If you had been told from the get-go that you only needed an extra semester you probably would’ve been thrilled. But I’m gonna go out on a limb here and say you’ve probably had some experiences or shifts in perspective thanks to how this has all panned out, yeah? All the best to you as you reconfigure everything. And congratulations on graduating this December!!!

  • Annie Little

    Peter, talk about insightful! Love love love this.

  • Annie Little

    Noam, so many parallels between our stories! I spent 7 years on college and law school…ugh. And I was working through the “How the eff do I make money and be happy” question while on a trip to South Africa. Something about travel really gets my mind in the “right” place, you know? And asking “what’s the worst/how likely” is so effective. When I feel that fear and extreme need to control, I’ve also started asking myself, “What’s the BEST possible outcome here?” Totally changes my perspective for the better!

  • hi, thanks for posting this article. embracing uncertainty is one of the most challenging things to do. absolutely everything has crashed around me, and it’s one of the toughest times of my life and although on many levels I completely trust the universe has my back, its been terrifying and its meant really having to preach what I teach and have blind faith. as an intuitive its been particularly destabilising not getting any signs as to which direction to take, but perhaps part of uncertainty is going through a ‘divine fog’ for a time and not having the answers because we are being tested on how much we truly trust?……..annie

  • Annie Little

    Annie, I wish I knew exactly why we have to endure times of uncertainty. But as far as I can tell, it’s something we all have to work through from time to time. And we usually learn and grow a ton if we embrace the discomfort, trust that it will end and remember that no matter what we’ll be okay. Hang in there! You’ve got this!

  • Janet Lacey

    The only way out is through. Thank you for sharing your honesty about Law school, it has had a similar effect of disbelief that I could have spent the last 5 years of my life wasted on this soulless path. The uncertainty is part of it but also the human condition and conflicted nature of the beast is a monster to tame. Law is short of laughs and there is no love but many desperate people. We are in desperate times and the rule of law is uncertain in the global village. Im going into my last year to finish off the beast I doubt it will lead to a job or income but I will defeat the monster and rip out its heart. Compliance conformity whatever these places are trying to impose with a first or 2;1 its not intelligence or education. Political indoctrination rewarded by inclusion is what you end up with. In incremental stages which are dictated by some convention which has no interest in you unless you will perform its bidding. Its a f****ing monster not a life! You chose life. I think I will too.

  • I started journaling about 15 years ago, and besides meditating, it has been the single most useful self-inquiry tool. Plus all that gratitude goes to my brain 🙂

    Thanks for sharing your story Annie!

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  • Noam Lightstone

    Yeah that best possible outcome thing I’ve started doing as well! It puts things in perspective. Usually the positive situations FAR outweigh the possible negatives, and usually the negatives are just because of silly fears XD.

  • Annie Little

    You’re so welcome, Salisha! Always love to hear long-term journaling success stories 🙂

  • Annie Little

    Janet, YES!!!!! Slay that effing beast!!! And don’t be enslaved by its minions!!! You’re a strong person, and you can do pretty much anything you set your mind to because YOU HAVE SURVIVED LAW SCHOOL.