- In the information age, knowledge may be more likely to overwhelm than to empower.
- Uncertainty and complexity are today’s norms; embracing them as a way to learn and grow can help us cope and even thrive.
- Being present and fostering curiosity can help us be more flexible and successful problem-solvers.
If you’re feeling overwhelmed by having too much information to process, you’re not alone. The American Psychological Association’s report, "A National Mental Health Crisis," reveals that most Americans feel stressed and overwhelmed by uncertainty and challenges. Given the volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous (VUCA) world we live in, how else are we supposed to feel?
We hear the mantra that “knowledge is power,” but more knowledge can result in sensory overload. When the complexity exceeds our ability to make sense of it, we’re likely to feel less powerful, not more.
How to find balance during uncertainty
Though early studies have shown that social media can cause anxiety and depression, recent research shows that a balanced and healthy use of social media can actually have mental health benefits (Bekalu, 2019). Likewise, a balanced approach in attempting to understand and manage our information-laden world can also improve our mental health.
Given the complexity of modern society, there is no way to fully comprehend all the causes and consequences of every issue that impacts our lives. There will always be aspects that are mysterious and unknowable. Just take the hand-wash versus dishwasher debate. One saves water, the other energy. Which approach has greater overall benefit or lesser harm for Earth and humanity? There may not be a straightforward answer to this simple question. This small example illustrates the unknowable nature of even the most simple issues.
Even if we could understand all the causes and consequences around decisions in our daily lives, our ability to clearly process information without bias is limited. Daniel Kahneman’s Nobel prize winning work on cognitive bias and errors reveals that decision-making is fraught with error (2011). Kahneman recommends that when it comes to important decisions, we must first be aware of our tendency to make mental errors, and secondly, we must slow the thinking process to intentionally reduce the bias and errors in our thought process.
Given our inability to know, understand, or process issues without bias, it is necessary to become comfortable with a degree of uncertainty. US culture values confidence, certainty, and expertise, making embracing uncertainty a tough pill to swallow. Although good medicine might be initially bitter, the benefits are well worth it.
Here are four strategies for embracing, and even celebrating uncertainty:
1. Reframe Johari’s window
Johari’s window is a conceptual framework that illustrates what we know and don’t know. Normally it’s drawn like this, suggesting that the unknown is the same dimensions as what we know:
Drawing the window this way I feel more accurately reflects what we know and don’t know.
Accepting that a large part of our reality is unknown and unknowable means we can focus more on discovery of the mystery, rather than defending the lost cause of certainty.
Discovering the unknown also means that we can take a more humble, flexible approach to dealing with VUCA, and be better problem solvers in our lives and the world.
2. Be present
It can feel overwhelming to accept that we know so little. Yet this has always been true, regardless of our stage of acceptance.
Living in the moment and being present can help us cope with feelings of helplessness and impotence. The quality of our lives and actions are determined one moment at a time. In the present moment, we can choose to access peacefulness, a sense of safety, connection, and joy. We can also foster clarity by accessing our inner voice, listening to our personal truth that whispers beneath our mind’s chatter.
Clarity regarding our personal truth also tends to direct our focus to our sphere of influence: We decide what to focus on, which determines what we see, which determines how we feel, which determines what we do. Change your focus to align with your personal truth, and you shift into your place of power and authentic action.
3. Use curiosity to foster learning and flexible decision-making
When we accept the limitations of our beautiful minds, we realize that the vast unknown is full of enchantment and insight. We trade certainty for curiosity, embracing the exploration and discovery of ourselves, each other, and our world with a sense of awe, wonder, and gratitude.
Remember the delight of discovery you felt as a child (or that you observe in children)? That feeling of wonder is our gift when we avail ourselves of curiosity and openness.
Though challenging memories and emotions may also hide in the unknown, transcendent ones like awe and joy are also there. The help of a good therapist can be so beneficial to uncovering all of them.
Curiosity helps us to learn and grow, which enables better decision-making, life satisfaction, and success (Dweck, 2006). In our VUCA world, decisions are best regarded as working hypotheses rather than concrete conclusions, constantly undergoing revision in our dynamic environment.
We tend to associate uncertainty with worse outcomes. However, outcomes can be far better than imagined. Being closed to excursions and detours diminishes the chance for wonder, unexpected insights, and beautiful surprises and synchronicities.
4. Reframe mistakes and challenges
Being wrong and making mistakes also have the benefit of generating learning opportunities that would be unavailable if it was smooth sailing. In other words, there’s a potential upside to all challenges, if we choose to find the opportunity inherent in them.
I’m not suggesting that we take a reckless or naive approach to issues for the purposes of generating learning opportunities. I am saying that, after making an informed decision based on a working hypothesis, failed experiments show us the need to revise the hypothesis and how. Regarding setbacks as learning opportunities improves our wellbeing and success in the long run (Dweck, 2006).
Mesfin A. Bekalu, M. A., McCloud, R. F., & Viswanath, K. (2019). Association of Social Media Use With Social Well-Being, Positive Mental Health, and Self-Rated Health: Disentangling Routine Use From Emotional Connection to Use. Health Education & Behavior, 46(2_suppl), 69S-80S. https://doi.org/10.1177/1090198119863768
Dweck, C. S. (2006). Mindset: The new psychology of success. New York: Random House.Kahneman, D. (2011). Thinking, fast and slow. Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
American Psychological Association (2020), "Stress in America™ 2020. A National Mental Health Crisis. https://www.apa.org/news/press/releases/stress/2020/report-october