I posted about this on Twitter as well a while ago and thought elaborating on it a bit further.
Uncertainty = death
Our brains want to have certainty. We need to have full control over the situation before we go into it. If we are even a slightest bit of uncertain, we get anxious. From an evolutionary point of view this makes perfect sense. Our ancestors survived because they were cautious.
Those who were not cautious and careful and ready to run before going into a unknown cave had much smaller chance of survival. What if a sabre-tooth tiger is there?
Therefore the ones who were cautious did survive and carried onward the genes. This explains why we need certainty. Cautious people survived and the others died. Evolution.
In modern day life we still feel the same anxiety wash over us as we go by our modern lives doing things that are new to us.
E.g. we don’t feel well travelling to a new country without proper planning. What time does the plane land? How does the public transport work? How do I buy tickets? Where do I stay the night? Even after figuring out these questions and many others we sometimes still find ourselves excessively checking Google Maps just to be sure.
In our home town we don’t carefully plan our routes every day, we roughly know our way around. We don’t often know exactly how we get to some destination but we are sure of ourselves that we figure it out. Even if we take a wrong bus, no problem.
Anxiety caused by uncertainty does not only apply to going to new places. It applies to everything new. This is also why people generally don’t like new things. May it be a new software or a new arrangement of work flow in the office.
In modern day life there are no possible tigers attacking us if we are in a job interview or going to take photos of people on the street or starting a conversation with an attractive stranger. Yet, the response is as if it’s a matter of life and death. The more uncertain the situation, the more anxiety we tend to have. Our brains want to make sure nothing is left out for the chance.
No matter what happens …
The trick is to re-frame your thinking. Since our brains want control, we can calm them down by reassuring ourselves that whatever happens, we’re going to be just fine. We’re not going to die or get hurt. In fact, we chose the situation exactly as it is and it’s just the way we wanted it to be. Nothing is uncertain about it. We’re in control.
I know it may sound a bit woo-woo but try it. Reassuring that everything will be fine no matter what has helped me personally. That’s what true confidence is. True confidence is not knowing that you’re going to win for sure but knowing that whatever the outcome, we’ll be just fine.
A more Stoic approach would be understand that life begins at the end of your comfort zone. This is what Neale Donald Walsch has said. Take the approach that even if everything goes wrong and not the way you planned or hoped, you will learn from the experience. Re-frame it as a positive thing.
Disorder is good
Let’s look at the issue from another angle. Nassim N. Taleb talks a lot about chaos, volatility and randomness (and much more of course) in his book Antifragile (by the way, this has to be one of the best books I’ve ever read). In short, he argues that unpredictability is good for us. It makes us stronger.
Imagine a world where everything is controlled and predictable. Perfect weather, perfect temperature, everywhere at all times. Full stability. Would you like that? Would you innovate in that environment? Going by your predictable day like an automaton. Think about that for a moment.
The problem with predictability is that there is no growth. Innovation doesn’t come from the safe comfort of our homes.
When you go to the gym, you expose your body to the stressors and you become stronger. Why do we think that applying the same mentality to other areas of our lives is bad? And, yes it seems that the humanity’s goal is to have full stability everywhere and with everything. We were once the species that roamed freely and now we’ve become these domesticated pets.
In order to thrive, to grow we need to be exposed to unpredictable and turbulent environments and situations. We as humans have the ability to adapt and cope with change. So let’s use it! Jump in first, figure out later. Adventure! Don’t try to forecast everything. Go out and seek out uncertainty. Embrace chaos!