Be Certain About Uncertainty

uncertainty, robert rose, the content advisory

We think a lot about change in the business of content marketing. We think about how we’re going to change our strategies, our people, and our culture to fit into a new, envisioned future. 

Innovative change in business is an ideal. We look for it. We hope for it. We pay for consultants to come in and help point us in the right direction to find it. But transformation is something where everyone wants to own the result, and no one wants to own the process. 

Why is that? 

Most of the time, we’re less afraid of failing than we are of the uncertainty that we can succeed.   

See, our stress about how we’ll take on the change we envision is directly related to how uncertain the outcome is. This fear is so strong that, as author Tim Ferris wrote in The 4-Hour Workweek, “people will actually choose unhappiness over uncertainty.” 

Don’t assume people make this choice because they’re afraid of the consequence of failure. 

A wonderful study done by neuroscientists a few years ago found that we are hardwired to stress out about uncertainty. In short: we’re more likely to feel stressed and risk averse because of the uncertainty of potential negative consequences, not because of predictable negative consequences.

For example, imagine you’re late for an important flight. You jump into the car and traffic is oddly light. You’re making the best time ever. You feel great because you’re sure you’re going to make your flight. Conversely, if the traffic is bumper to bumper from mile one, you may resign yourself to missing the flight. You relax and start thinking about making alternate plans. 

Now imagine traffic is light at first, then heavy. The odds of making it to the airport drop (or raise) to about 50/50 – and that’s when you stress, yell, pound your steering wheel, and convince yourself you’re an idiot for not having planned better. 

I’ve watched this happen time and again when building the case for strategic content in the business. It’s common for me to finish a workshop or an engagement where we’ve brainstormed all kinds of change. Everyone is tremendously excited and so happy to envision the “new” environment. Traffic is light.

But that happiness and confidence fade as we get into the actual planning and road mapping. It’s not the difficulty of the changes or even the audacious goals that make people freak out. It’s the uncertainty. As we add rocks to our path, we don’t fear the rocks we know. We stress when we don’t know if there are rocks we aren’t aware of.

Here’s the funny thing. It’s the “not knowing” that we have to embrace.

The neuroscientists who conducted the research made a secondary finding that gives me hope –it’s something I tell all my clients and workshop attendees after we’ve done the road mapping.

The research found that participants in the study who were most sensitive to the uncertainty performed best at the tasks they were assigned. In other words, their ability to feel and deal – to give themselves over to the uncertainty – gave them an edge when managing the challenges in the projects they took on.

Simply giving up control is helpful. It makes us better able to manage the unknown. For centuries monks, yogis, and those who practice meditation have said there is a strength in occasionally surrendering control. 

The next time you’re concerned about the uncertainty of that big, innovative change process, accept the uncertainty of the rocks you’ll have to get around. Be comfortable that there will be rocks and surrender yourself to the good and the bad they may bring. 

As my grandfather used to say, “If you’re already in the river, you might as well go with the flow.” 

It’s your story. Tell it well.

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