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Five Tips for Dealing with Uncertainty

January 30, 2013
Evan Roth, Executive Director of Organizational Effectiveness and Chief Learning Officer, Nelnet

Evan Roth, Executive Director of Organizational Effectiveness and Chief Learning Officer, Nelnet

We live in a world of uncertainty.  Then again, so did our grandparents, and the same will be said of our grandchildren.  Popular press states that the world is more uncertain than it has ever been—after all, we just came off the prediction that the end of the world (Mayan calendar) was upon us!  Is there truly more uncertainty or do we just hear about it more?  The fact is that uncertainty is always present, and people generally tend to ascribe negative emotions to it.

Why does uncertainty tend to throw us for a curve?  Science tells us that we wake up each day with active inertia–our brains telling us that we want our days to be predictable, known, and certain.  Our brains also have a negativity bias (we give more attention and weight to negative experiences than positive ones).  We often drift into “what if” scenarios—frequently with possible negative outcomes.

On a personal level, we often have questions about our lives that we simply don’t know the answers to, and we aren’t always comfortable with that. Maybe we’re waiting for medical tests results, hoping for a promotion at work, or our child has been struggling in school and we are anxious to see how much he or she improved since the last quarter. How do we handle that uncertainty?

Here are some tips that I hope you find helpful as you encounter uncertain moments.

1.  Size up the uncertainty. Ask yourself if the uncertain situation you are facing is a big deal or a small deal.  Just asking this question can cause you to reframe the uncertainty. At an international non-profit that I am associated with, I have heard the question asked, “Is this a first world or a third world problem?” Just asking the question brings perspective on what really matters and needs further attention.

2.  Ask yourself, “What’s the worst that can happen?” By asking this question, we can begin to understand the potential downside to possible negative outcomes from uncertainty.  By confronting our worst fears, we increase our ability to properly evaluate the issue and make space to consider potential positive outcomes.

3.  Assign a probability.  Many of today’s professionals live in the left brain filled with analysis, facts, and data. By assigning a probability percentage to the potential negative outcome we’re evaluating, we can determine how much effort needs to be spent on it. Is it really worth our time and energy to focus on a 5% chance of something happening?

4. Consider that opportunities rise out of uncertainty. It takes discipline to think of possibilities, solutions, and opportunities before thinking of potential downsides. However, if we know that uncertainty is going to be present for the rest of our lives, why not attempt to permanently change our approach to it? When we find ourselves going down the path of negative conclusions without doing steps 1–3 above, we can take a deep breath and reconsider the situation with a solutions-oriented approach. What’s the harm in giving it a try?

5.  Imagine a “fearless” outcome.  What great outcomes could arise out of the uncertainty we are experiencing? What if we completely extracted fear from the equation? What if the uncertainty simply produced options with no fear attached? Fear can limit our ability to envision and move ourselves toward great outcomes. It can also inordinately and inaccurately inflate the downsides of uncertainty.

When we are honest with ourselves, we find that life will always have uncertainty associated with it.  Uncertainty can make life exciting.  In other circumstances, it can “knock us off our game” unless we employ techniques like those described above.  What’s just around the corner for you?  It could be opportunity knocking.

Evan Roth is a Certified Executive Coach, Energy Leadership Index Master Practitioner, and a C level executive. He enjoys helping people thrive in the corporate world. You can find him at

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