Just a few days after quitting my job at an advertising agency, I got on a one-way flight headed to Colombo, Sri Lanka. I left my friends, my family, and my career to fulfill a lifelong dream of vagabonding throughout the world. Although excited by the adventure of it all, I sat on the plane clutching my seat, fearing what the future entailed. My mind raced with questions – what was I going to do when my money ran out? What if I get ill while traveling? How am I going to get around when I don’t know the language? Where the hell am I sleeping on Tuesday?
It was a major period of transition for me. Maybe you’re going through your own. Some of these events could include:
- Death of a loved one
- Breakup or divorce
- Job loss or career change
- Major injury or illness
- Gaining a new family member (i.e. birth, adoption, someone moving)
- Major change in living (i.e. new city, new home)
Transitional events are filled with uncertainty. As such, this can be one of the most stressful periods of your life. Your mind is crowded with unanswered questions – why did things pan out the way they did? Why did it have to happen to us? What does the future hold now that things have changed?
These open loops leave us struggling to transition into our new lives. In this article we’re going to address this very issue. We’ll talk about why your mind is wired to be unsettled during times of transition, common ways your mind holds you back from change, and how to embrace uncertainty and better your life in the process.
Why Our Minds Are Unsettled With Uncertainty
Simply put, your mind is naturally unsettled with uncertainty. It hates the grey zone and finds discomfort within the ambiguity of transitional periods. As a result, it continually seeks to resolve this tension. In fact, your brain’s inborn need is to resolve the open-ended.
Let’s do a quick exercise. If I say 1 + 1 = ……
Your mind can’t help but think 2. It was as if a knee jerk reaction triggered in your mind to close the loop. It’s a phenomena that pops up countless times throughout your day to day life, oftentimes completely under the radar.
Let me give you an example. I saw a terrible comedy in theaters the other week, and within fifteen minutes I knew I wouldn’t like it. Yet I didn’t leave the theater or switch my ticket. I found myself sitting all the way to the end credits. As bad as it was, there was something inside me that had to find out how the story would unfold.
TV writers take advantage of this same phenomena. If you’ve been engrossed in a series like Lost, or 24 – they spend the entire episode building up to a climax, and right before you find out what you’re dying to see, they end the show. These cliffhangers practically guarantee you come back to find out what happens next week.
The reason why I stayed in that theater or you binge watch shows on Netflix, is our minds are unsettled with open-ended loops – even with mundane things like televisions shows and movies. In times of transition such as a job loss or divorce, your life is one giant open loop. Major areas of life are unclear, uncertain, and open to interpretation. Being in this type of grey zone causes an incredible degree of stress and your brain will attempt to resolve this tension in any way it can.
Say your struggling with a painful breakup from a partner. Your life is filled with unanswered question of why they left, who they’re with now, and what your life is going to be now that you’re single. Your mind attempts to make sense of it by saying things like “Of course she left me, there’s better looking guys out there… In fact, I bet she’s dating that co-worker Brad she kept talking about… I’ll never find someone like her again…”
In the same way your brain automatically thought two when we did the 1 + 1 exercise, your brain automatically starts painting a picture of your life during the ambiguous. It attempts to make conclusions (no matter how distorted or simplistic) of a very complex issue. This coping mechanism gives you a sense of security during the madness of transitional periods.
This leads to another important point about you mind…
The Mind’s Attempt To Resolve Uncertainty
In addition to your mind’s innate urge to resolve the open-ended, it also seeks simple answers to complex issues. In the breakup example, judgement calls were made about the cause of the breakup and what life will be like in the future.
It’s easy to think this is the be-all, end-all truth about one’s life. Yet in reality it’s just one interpretation, just one opinion. There are thousands of interpretations you could make during this time – none of which could fully explain why things unfolded they way the did, or what the future entails.
Life is complex, and sometimes there aren’t answers to the problems we find ourselves in. Yet our minds continually look to simplify these issues in order to make sense of it all.
In many ways, this function of our mind can be beneficial. If you continually looked at every possible angle of every possible situation you find yourself in, you’d go crazy. I recently watched a short about the chess prodigy Bobby Fischer. As legendary of a chess master he was earlier in his career, he became crazy later in life. Why did this occur?
In chess, the more you can think ahead, the more scenarios you can fathom, the more interpretations you can make, the better you play. At any given moment, a pro chess player has to interpret thousands of different scenarios at once. Although this makes you a great chess player, it can be damaging in the real world. When you’ve conditioned to make thousands of interpretations on all the scenarios your find yourself in, you go mad, which is what happened to Fischer.
With that said, understand that your brain needs to break down the complex to the simple. It needs to make distinctions about the world, no matter how simplistic, no matter how distorted they may be. Yet the downside of this function, is the picture your mind paints about your life isn’t fully accurate. The judgements you make, the conclusions you jump to, the interpretations you think of will never fully be true – even more so during the uncertainty of transitional periods. No amount of reasoning will ever explain why your life panned out the way it has.
Yet most people cling onto their stories they make in their minds. It allows them to think they have some degree of certainty in an uncertain world. If you’re looking for answers why you got laid off, why your friend died, why your relationship broke down – as hard as it is to accept, sometimes there are no answers. Sometimes loops aren’t meant to be closed.
Yet how can we learn to accept this fact and find comfort in not knowing? To help answer this question, let’s turn to a famous zen story…
Learning To Embrace Uncertainty
Once upon a time there was an old farmer who had worked his crops for many years. One day his horse ran away. Upon hearing the news, his neighbors came to visit. “Such bad luck,” they said sympathetically. “You never know…” the farmer replied.
The next morning the horse returned, bringing with it three other wild horses. “How wonderful,” the neighbors exclaimed. “You never know…” replied the old man.
The following day, his son tried to ride one of the untamed horses, was thrown off, and broke his leg. The neighbors again came to offer their sympathy on his misfortune. “You never know…” answered the farmer.
The day after, military officials came to the village to draft young men into the army. Seeing that the son’s leg was broken, they passed him by. The neighbors congratulated the farmer on how well things had turned out. “You never know…” said the farmer.
As this story illustrates, you really don’t know what’s going to happen in the future. You never know if there’s a greater plan for you, if the problems you find yourself in is simply one step, in a much larger plan.
Most of the time, life gives you exactly what you need, not necessarily what you want. Life is one giant classroom Right now, life threw you a curveball and presented you with situation you’re in now. It may not be fun, but here you are. It’s up to you take this obstacle, learn the lesson you needed to learn, and evolve.
I’m sure there’s been times in your life where you were presented with an obstacle, a challenge, a hardship, that at the time was terrible. When you were knee deep in the mess, you thought there was zero benefit from going through it. Only later on when you looked back and connected the dots, you realized how important that event was.
As tough as that challenge was, it allowed you to grow into a stronger person, it allowed you to stumble upon some opportunity you wouldn’t have had otherwise, it allowed you to learn a valuable lesson, etc. Steve Jobs talked about this in his famous 2005 commencement speech he made at Stanford University.
Jobs was adopted. And his biological mother was reluctant to sign the adoption papers, and she only agreed after his adopted parents assured her that he was go to college. But when the time came, Steve Jobs actually dropped out of college his freshman year, which was pretty scary for him at the time. This freed him up to drop into classes he felt was interesting, calligraphy being one of them.
This had absolutely no practical benefit, and most would think that it was a waste of his time. But 10 years later, when they designed the first macintosh, he took all those lessons about great typography, great design, and he poured it into that computer, which later changed the world. In his own words…
“You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. You have to trust in something — your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever. This approach has never let me down, and it has made all the difference in my life.”
So again, you never know. However stressful this period is for you, for whatever strange reason, you need this. It’s one dot, in a series of many dots in your future. It can be scary right now, but trust in the process. Trust that eventually those dots are going to connect, that things will somehow work it’s way out in the future.
Get comfortable with uncertainty and enjoy the journey. You never what life has in store with you. The fun is finding out as you go along. Just like a good movie, an engaging book, a funny joke – the magic of it all is in the not knowing. Life works very much the same way. What’s the fun in jumping straight to the finish line? Let go, embrace the uncertain, and let the chips fall where they fall.
Cover Photo by Romina Lutz