As a graduate student, much of my research focused on the process of adapting to uncertainty. You may have figured this out for yourself, but it turns out, uncertainty is hard. The experience of uncertainty is heightened when we are awaiting an important decision or change, like right after applying for a new job or putting an offer on a new home. We could argue, however, that life is just a series of many waiting periods. We are always striving to complete the next project, achieve the next goal, find the next best relationship, etc.
Part of why uncertainty is unnerving is that the human brain is in the habit of detecting patterns that help us to make predictions about the future and therefore navigate the wildness of our lives. It can be very intimidating to try to guess the absolute best course of action possible to optimize success and happiness in career, relationships, finances, etc. Much of the changing tides of our lives can be unpredictable and perhaps out of our control. Most of my work with private clients is to guide and support people who are just trying to adapt to unforeseen changes in their lives.
What we often forget is that times of transition and change can become great opportunities to break free from the past, old identities that we have outgrown, and move in the direction of our greatest aspirations for the future. But most people find this kind of freedom quite scary. That’s why so many people rely on prescriptions from family, friends, the media, and “experts” to define what it means to live a well-lived life. The truth is that there is no manual, no set directions, for how best to live our lives. In fact, it is the most subjective process we could ever possibly imagine.
Some of us find this out after years of trying to fit into the mold of what other people want us to be. Only after experiencing the backlash, a kind of rebellion, do we give ourselves permission to move closer towards the things that bring us joy and a sense of satisfaction or completion.
So, how can we dedicate ourselves to the best future without knowing for certain where we are heading? Find some tools below for ways that you can stir your imagination to dream big and start to make moves towards the brightest and best future ahead.
Alchemy by way of declaration. I think most people underestimate the therapeutic and sense-making power of writing something out on paper. When we write, we can better see and organize the scattered bits and pieces of thought into something more comprehendible. Writing provides a new perspective of viewing our lives, perhaps allowing for a bit of psychological distance, which may in turn activate a more abstract way of thinking about yourself. This type of abstract self-view has been linked with greater adaptation to uncertainty . Try writing about the things in life that bring you joy and excite you. Write about your wildest dreams. Think of where you might see yourself 5 years from now, in the best possible scenario, without any limitations .
Make friends with fear and failure. Too often, we take fear at face value. We feel something uncomfortable or unfamiliar and we back off. The same can be said about failure, we try something new and when we find it hard, we back off immediately. But learning to endure these uncomfortable and awkward feelings and experiences is a priceless skill. As someone who runs anxious, these are two frenemies I have come to know quite well. There are times that I feel fear and failure trying to bully me around, but whenever possible, I try to acknowledge the feelings and make tiny advances forward. It's all about learning to stay present even in times when you instinctively want to retreat into your shell like a human crustacean. Feel the fear and experience the failure, but stay present long enough to outlive those temporary experiences. When we are able to endure past fear and failure, we get a glimpse of the joy of discovery, we get to peer over the edges of possibility. The more you practice not backing down when you feel these feelings, the closer and closer you get to learning and creating something beautiful and new.
Rose-colored sunnies are the new black. Optimism is not realistic, most of the time. While it is always important to stay grounded and consider the very real possibility of bumps in the road, it is also necessary to let yourself be a little foolishly optimistic sometimes. Optimism can be especially helpful when imagining big goals, like starting a new business. The great humanistic psychologist, Gordon Allport, was one of the first people to talk about the importance of learning one’s most cherished self-wishes . The poet Mary Oliver echoed this sentiment in her famous line of poetry: “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” Let yourself indulge in some Henry Ford level optimism from time to time. These wild dreams can serve as motivation to fuel the hard work required to get from where you are to where you want to be.
Listen to your heart, and your gut.We have all been socialized to follow rules and abide by norms in order to fit in. Cooperation is a vital skill in a world where social interaction goes hand in hand with survival. That said, it’s possible to become so obsessed with how other people may view us that we lose touch with our own intuition about what is right and wrong, good and bad, or desirable and undesirable. Learning to feel and understand the internal, biological feedback of your body can be one way to hone your intuition and sharpen your ability to decide and choose for yourself what you want and need. Notice what excites you, what brings you joy and satisfaction, what terrifies you (sometimes that's the path to the good stuff)... what makes your heart beat wildly, what animates you, what brings you into a state of effortless action? Follow that.
1. King, L. A. (2001). The health benefits of writing about life goals. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 27(7), 798-807.
2. Cavanaugh, A. G., & Sweeny, K. M. (2012). Hanging in the balance: The role of self-construal abstractness in navigating self-relevant uncertainty. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 38(4), 520-527.
3. Allport, G .W (1961). Pattern and growth in personality. NY. Holt, Rinehart and Winston.