If you ever go on a road trip with my father and you need to grab a bite to eat, I’ll warn you that you’re going to be stopping at McDonald’s.
Here’s the thing that’s really weird about that: My dad doesn’t even like McDonald’s. The second his burger is set in front of him, he complains about the squishiness of the bun and points out the thin patty and wilted lettuce.
After years of his griping, I finally asked him, “Dad, why do we always stop here when traveling? It doesn’t seem like you enjoy it very much…”
Without missing a beat, he responded, “Well, I hate it...but at least I know I hate it.”
My dad is a creature of habit to his core, and I’m self-aware enough (although, admittedly, slightly embarrassed) to confess that I picked up some of those same traits. I like consistency, predictability, and routine. They're comforting.
As conditioned as I am to loathe uncertainty (actually, we all are—you can thank evolution), I also recognize that some of the greatest things that have ever happened to me haven’t been premeditated and planned.
Several of the best meals I’ve eaten have been at random restaurants that I wandered into after the ones I wanted to dine at had too long of a wait. One of my beloved rescue mutts stumbled her way into my life through a series of unexpected events. Heck, even the journey to my current writing career has had its own weird twists of fate.
Admitting that is pretty disarming, isn’t it? It’s tough to recognize that we don’t have total control—that sometimes it’s embracing those uncertain paths that leads to the greatest outcomes.
So... Why Is Uncertainty So Darn Daunting?
This might be one tendency that we can blame on evolution. For our ancestors who were fighting the elements and scavenging for food, unpredictability was a major threat—not just to their confidence, but to their survival. In an interview with Quartz, a neuroscientist, Beau Lotto, explains:
“This has to do with uncertainty and how dying is easy, living is hard. Our brains and bodies evolved to not die—evolution works from failure, not from success. But being optimized to not to die is not the same thing as being optimized to live. A lot of that is about reducing uncertainty. Our brains and behaviors evolved to try to minimize uncertainty in almost all circumstances.”
Put simply, our brains are groomed to despise uncertainty.
Not only that, but ambiguity can actually trigger our fear response and compromise our decision making.
In one study, a neuroeconomist at Caltech observed images of participants’ brains as they made increasingly risky or uncertain bets. Surprisingly, the less information the participants had to inform their choices, the more irrational their decisions became.
You’d think that the uncertainty of operating with limited information would make them more carefully evaluate their choices. But, in reality, the brain’s limbic systems (that’s where emotions are generated and also where the fear response takes place) took over their thought processes—ultimately causing them to make rash decisions in response to uncertainty.
3 Tips To Embrace The Unknown
Scary stuff, right? I’d love to tell you that this article comes with a downloadable crystal ball that will help you predict your future and ward off any pesky uncertainty. 🔮
Unfortunately, that’s not the case. Life is unpredictable, which requires that you start to get a little more comfortable with the uncomfortable.
Doing so not only reduces your stress when you’re inevitably faced with ambiguity, but it also gives you the necessary wiggle room to focus on the journey (rather than the outcome) and even experience some positive, unexpected results.
But how do you increase your comfort level here?
Here are three strategies you can use to embrace the unknown—no huffing and puffing into a paper bag required.
1. Push Yourself Out Of Your Bubble
What if I demanded that you run a mile right now? No stretching, no preparing, no warming up. Would that be easy?
Probably not (unless you’re already familiar with long-distance running, of course). That’s because you need to work up to it. It’s all about baby steps.
You can apply the same concept to getting comfortable with change and uncertainty.
Dip your toe into the water with some new challenges and experiences. Raise your hand to take on that project that you don’t have a ton of experience in or volunteer to train a new employee, despite the fact that you’ve never done so before.
Need a non-work-related example?
During one recent weekend evening, I went to a brewery to throw axes (rather than defaulting to my standard plan of pizza, sweatpants, and reality television). The very idea of combining alcohol, large crowds of people, and flying axes was anxiety-inducing for a worrywart like me. But you know what? It was actually a ridiculously fun time.
Stepping out of your comfort zone (that doesn’t have to mean throwing axes for you) will obviously get you out of any rut you might be in, while also increasing your tolerance for hazy or seemingly precarious outcomes.
Even better news? Getting away from the predictable can boost your brain’s neuroplasticity, which is essentially a fancy term for your brain’s ability to form new connections. It’s directly correlated with novelty, so it’s time to shake things up a little bit.
2. Think About (Realistic) Worst Case Scenarios
Here’s just how much your brain hates uncertainty: recent research shows that not knowing what’s going to happen is far more stressful than knowing for sure that the outcome is going to be bad.
You read that right—you experience less anxiety when you know something awful is going to happen, than you do when you’re rolling the dice and hoping for the best (I guess that explains my dad’s affinity for McDonald’s when on the road).
Yep, science backs up the fact that uncertainty is pretty anxiety-inducing. And, sorry, but there’s no way for sure to know how things are going to play out.
However, thinking through likely worst case scenarios is a mental trick to help you get around that. When you’re trying something new or dealing with another seemingly risky scenario, ask yourself this: what’s the worst thing that could happen?
Try not to spiral into the totally improbable (for example, it probably wasn’t all that likely that I was going to accidentally chop off my husband’s arm while on an axe-throwing date) and instead try to identify negative situations that could potentially happen. I could embarrass myself. Or injure myself.
If things pan out the way you imagined, you were somewhat mentally prepared. And if they don’t, you’re relieved. Think of it as a way to give yourself a much-needed reality check, while simultaneously providing a somewhat artificial sense of security and certainty.
3. Describe What You’re Feeling
Our emotions can hold a lot of power, and that’s especially true if you try to sweep them under the rug and ignore them entirely.
That’s why, whenever you’re feeling anxious about uncertainty or risk, you should try literally verbalizing how you’re feeling. It’s something that famous psychologist, Dan Siegel, refers to as “name it to tame it.”
So, maybe I’d say aloud, “I’m feeling uneasy about submitting this article because I don’t know if it’s what my editor is looking for.” Or, “I’m feeling anxious about heading to this conference because I don't know anybody there.”
If it seems pointless (and maybe a little nutty), I promise it’s not.
“The answer is that naming our emotions tends to diffuse their charge and lessen the burden they create,” writes Tony Schwartz in an article for The New York Times.
“It’s also true that we can’t change what we don’t notice. Denying or avoiding feelings doesn’t make them go away, nor does it lessen their impact on us, even if it’s unconscious. Noticing and naming emotions gives us the chance to take a step back and make choices about what to do with them.”
Make Uncertainty Your Friend, Not Your Enemy
Most of us loathe uncertainty and ambiguity, but we also know that it’s an inevitability of the real world so, you’re going to need to learn to cope with it in a healthy way.
Will you ever love the fact that sometimes life feels like pulling the lever on a slot machine? Maybe not. After all, it’s tough to program a brain that’s hardwired by evolution.
But, by putting the above strategies into play, you can deal with the unknown with a little more confidence.
And yes, rest assured that I’ll definitely be sharing this article with my dear ol’ dad. Who knows, we might just stop somewhere new (and tasty) on our next road trip.