When you travel to a new place or a large building like a museum, you often find yourself standing in front of a gigantic map of the area. That map often has a sticker on it that says, “You are here.” There is something comforting about being able to locate yourself quickly on a map.
That comfort with knowing where you are applies to many other facets of your life as well. When you are working on a project, it is nice to have benchmarks that give you a sense of how close the project is to completion. In your career, it feels good to have a sense of your value to the organization you work for, and your likelihood of advancement.
It’s comfortable to have a clear sense of where you stand in the workplace. On the flip side, it’s uncomfortable when there is uncertainty surrounding elements of your life.
One reason why uncertainty is uncomfortable is that people like to have reasons to support their actions. In a classic study, Eldar Shafir and Amos Tversky asked college students to imagine they had taken a difficult exam, but were not sure whether they had passed or failed. As they were walking up the street after the exam, they passed a travel agency offering a low fare for a wonderful trip to the Bahamas. The fare would expire that day, before they would find out whether they passed or failed the exam. Students were asked whether they wanted to take the trip. They could also pay $5 to extend the low-fare offer until the next day. The majority of participants elected to pay the money to get the low fare. That is, they were uncomfortable making a choice in the face of uncertainty.
Interestingly, two other groups of participants were run in this study. One group was told they took a difficult exam and passed. Another was told they took a difficult exam and failed. After that, they were given the same opportunity to take the discounted trip. The majority of people in both groups elected to take the trip. That means that at least some people in the group who didn’t know whether they passed or failed paid $5 for a piece of information that would not actually affect their decision. However, because the situation was uncertain, people didn’t want to make a big decision.
Many of the important situations in life (and particularly in work life) require a better tolerance for uncertainty than that. Innovative projects teeter on the brink between success and failure for quite a while, and during that time, many decisions have to be made. You have to be willing to work to get new business with no guarantees that proposals will be accepted, and that new clients will flood through the door.
It is valuable to recognize that much of your education did not teach you to deal with uncertainty. Exam questions often had one answer. Assignments had clear grading criteria. Teachers helped you to make steady progress toward the completion of projects.
To better cope with uncertainty, then, it is important to focus on the processes by which you live your life, rather than the outcomes. The value of education and experience is that you learn to do your work more effectively. You learn what has worked in the past and what has not.
In uncertain times, you have to trust the process you are engaging in, rather than focusing primarily on the current outcome. For example, many of my most successful colleagues in research know that new projects may take a long time to bear fruit. Early studies may not work as anticipated. New ideas may not be accepted quickly by reviewers for journals.
They succeed, though, by trusting in their knowledge of the process of doing research and writing it up for publication. By continuing to engage in activities that have led to success in the past, they are able to keep moving forward, even without clear outward signs that projects are succeeding.
Perhaps the best thing you can do is to find colleagues who seem to thrive in uncertain times. Take them out for coffee and pick their brains. Find out the strategies they use to allow themselves to act decisively and effectively, even when they don’t have a clear reason to believe that their efforts are paying off.