A Guide to Dealing with Uncertainty About What Path to Take
By Leo Babauta
The amount of time we spend fretting over what path to take, when we’re feeling uncertain, can sometimes be staggering.
We’re entering into unknown territory, and we don’t know how to proceed. It happens all the time for many of us: we start a new job, launch a new venture, change careers, have to deal with incredible change, decide to write a book or create something online, put ourselves in a new social situation.
Some of the things we do in response to this uncertainty:
- Extensive research, often to the point of very diminishing returns, sometimes to the point of being overwhelmed by how much information we’ve found.
- Buy books, courses, programs, other materials that we think will guide us — this isn’t necessarily a bad idea, but in truth, none of this will give us certainty.
- Try to find teachers or other people who will guide us, who have been there before — again, hoping that they’ll give us certainty, but often this isn’t a magic pill either.
- Delay making a decision, putting it off over and over because it’s too hard to decide. Avoid, avoid. This might be the most common option, actually.
- Give up because you don’t know if you can do it, don’t know what to do, don’t know what the hell you’re doing. This is pretty common too — in fact, most people give up before they even start.
These are very common reactions to entering into uncertainty, but usually not very helpful. They get in the way of doing the work and living the life we’d like.
So how do we deal with the uncertain path that we’d like to embark upon?
It’s not always easy, but I’ve found there to be a set of practices that can help tremendously.
The Mindset Shift
The first mindset shift to consider is that uncertainty is not bad, or something to be avoided. It’s a natural part of doing anything meaningful. In fact, feeling uncertainty is a great sign that you’re doing something challenging and meaningful.
Uncertainty can be embraced, opened up to, even loved. We can learn to cherish the uncertainty in our lives, if we shift our mindset and practice with it.
The second mindset shift is to see an uncertain path as a practice opportunity. It’s not something to run from, but a place to stay, so that we can grow, learn, and create.
Every time we feel uncertainty, it can be seen as a calling to open up and practice. To turn towards and try a new way of doing things, rather than indulging in old, unhelpful patterns.
The Uncertainty Practices
So let’s say you’re about to head down an uncertain path — starting a new job, moving into a new phase of your life, writing a book, launching a business or product …
How do you open to the uncertainty and practice with it?
Here’s what I’ve found to be useful, in writing books and launching programs, along with dealing with huge life changes:
- Stay in the uncertainty as a practice, and with devotion. You are staying in this place of uncertainty to practice with it, but also to serve those you care deeply about. They are worth it. Remind yourself of them, and that doing this for them is more important than your discomfort with uncertainty. Let yourself feel uncertainty in your body, staying with the sensations in the moment — and learn that it’s not a big deal to feel that uncertainty. With practice, this becomes easier and easier.
- Go with the gut (or the heart). If you’re unsure of what path to take (need to make some decisions), it’s easy to get frozen in indecision, because there’s not clear answer. You can ask a hundred people, and not get a clear way to make a decision. You can read a million articles and books, talk to experts, but there’s no right answer. And so, you have to learn to trust your gut. Or your heart. When I’m at a crossroads, what I try to do is sit still for a little while, contemplating the question. I feel into my heart, and decide what feels right. I don’t have any certainty, because there’s no right answer. Instead, I have to trust my gut or heart, and just go with it … the real trust is that even if it’s the wrong answer, I’ll be perfectly fine. More on that bit below.
- Embrace the not knowing. So you’ve used your heart to make an uncertain choice … but you don’t know exactly how it will go. That’s OK. In fact, you can embrace this not knowing … it’s like reading a book or watching a movie without knowing how things will unfold. That’s part of the fun! Not knowing is a beautiful thing, even though most of the time we really want to know. Can you take the next step without knowing, being completely open to how things might turn out? Being curious to find out more, without having a fixed idea of how it should be? Letting things be fluid and fresh? Try it and see!
- Let things unfold as you walk the path. As you move along this uncertain path, see how things turn out. Notice what you can notice, learn from this new information. For example, if I’m going to launch a new product, I don’t know how people will respond. I can launch it without knowing, and see how they respond, listen to their reactions, talk to them and find out more. If I’m dealing with a health issue, I can try different solutions, noticing how they affect things. I don’t know how things will unfold, but I can walk the path and find out.
- Get information, adjust the path. As you let things unfold, you’ll be gathering new information. You’ll learn whether things turned out as you expected or not. You’ll be open to all of this, but it might turn out that you need to make adjustments. For example, when I launched my Fearless Training Program, I didn’t know exactly what people would need in the program, or how they’d respond to the training. Listening to them has helped me to understand better, and I’ve adjusted the program a lot in the past 18 months. Over and over, I listen and learn and adjust. It’s good to build in regular reviews so you can make adjustments as you walk the uncertain path — weekly reviews are great.
- Learn to trust you’ll be fine. You might flop on your face — but what’s the worst-case scenario (of all likely outcomes)? Probably nothing too bad. You won’t die, in most cases. What I’ve learned is to trust that things will turn out fine. Not as I expect, but fine. I might fail, but I learn to deal with the failure. A failure is just a way to grow, learn, get better. It’s not the end of the world. Walking the uncertain path, let yourself develop trust in yourself to respond resiliently to whatever happens. With this trust, you’ll learn that you don’t need to avoid the uncertainty.
- Create rituals to support the uncertainty. All of this is great in an ideal world — but in reality, we’re likely to go to our old patterns. The way to work with this is through rituals designed to support these practices. For example, you might start your day with meditation, letting yourself feel the uncertainty in your body. You might set a focus session for first thing in your work day, where you let yourself push into uncertainty every day, at least once a day. You might set up a weekly review, where you make adjustments based on how things are unfolding. In that review, you might notice how things are going just fine, and let that cultivate trust in the process and in yourself to handle things. You might get a group of advisors and check in with them once a month, talking to them about your uncertainty. Figure out what rituals you need to support your practice with uncertainty, and set them up.
This path of uncertainty isn’t anything you can’t handle. Many people have walked similar uncertain paths in the past, and are doing so now. You can do it just as well as anyone.
Our paths must contain uncertainty, because no one knows what the hell they’re doing. We’re making it up as we go along, learning as we go, and if we’re conscious about it, we can dance with the uncertainty with a smile on our face.