How to Deal with The Anxiety of Uncertainty in New Opportunities
Tools to Handle New Frightening Opportunities
Posted April 22, 2011
In the course of my career as a therapist, I have seen people from all kinds of socio-economic backgrounds and intellectual capacities. I have seen rich people who were not all that smart, rich people who were brilliant, people with an average income who were smart and those who were not, and poor people who were amazingly smart and those who were not. Anecdotally, there is clearly no connection between actual “smarts” and wealth, so I began to think more deeply about what is was that led to those who had not inherited their wealth to pursue and acquire it, and whether this factor was in fact absent amongst those who were not able to. And I came up with one characteristic that shines through – and that had to do with the way people manage personal uncertainty.
Uncertainty is not a friend of the brain. In fact, the brain’s fear center freaks out when it is presented with uncertainty and seeks to resolve it as quickly as possible. Now while this is advantageous in certain situations, in many, it is exactly the opposite of what a person needs to move ahead. If you are crossing a road, for example, and if you are uncertain about whether to race against an oncoming car, it would make sense to resolve that ambivalence and do the “safer” thing. But if you had an entrepreneurial opportunity that could help you escape from your current underpaid work situation, resolving the ambivalence of working because you are uncertain about leaving may not always be the best decision. Given that we will always rationalize what feels safer to us in favor of what is more familiar, how can we prevent seeing every opportunity as an incoming car, and when we do, how can we reject the familiar for a much wanted change in life?
A few principles that I have learned over the years: If you don’t move toward what you are interested in, your interest will wane. Get to know the opportunity better. Rather than making an instant decision or being focused on making a decision, focus on finding out more. Give your curious nature a chance. Allow yourself to get close enough so you can know the anxieties that you anticipate. Go back and forth until you feel comfortable with what you are considering. Make that opportunity familiar. For example, if you have an opportunity to pursue a novel idea with some interesting people but don’t know if it worth leaving your job over, meet with them often. Ask questions. Boldly ask for an extended timeline and options for joining later or options to opt out if it does not work. See if you can work on this part-time while you are at work. Go online to speak to a variety of people for whom this kind of move has worked out and for those for whom it hasn’t. The latter will likely be more plentiful, but this does not mean that you should give up.
In the meanwhile, you have to make sure that your anxiety about a new opportunity is not keeping you back. How do you manage this? Baby steps, I would say are better than no movement at all for first timers. Sharing the risk (as well as the potential gain) is always reassuring-get more people involved in your ideas. Set aside separate time to look at the upside and spend even a week focused only on this. Send some time in the mindset of the new choice. Even pretend for a weekend day that you have left your old position and sketch out what your daily schedule would look like. Decide on a backup plan if you feel this will help you. And always remember that you started once, and you can always re-start if you are determined. Supportive people help a lot – so spend more time with people you trust. And read more success stories than failure stories – your anxiety will have enough of your own failure stories made up.
This, I emphasize is a brief blog, so I simply summarize the ideas here. I understand that the summary may sound glib and that none of this is easy. But at the deepest level, you have to ask yourself: how much longer do I have to live and how do I want to live my life? If my anxiety about uncertainty is holding me back, what baby steps can I take to get to know it better?