Certainty: friend or foe?
What happens when we let go of certainty and open ourselves to unknown possibilities?
Who doesn’t like those filters you can add to photos on your phone? In an instant that sunset looks significantly more impressive or we look 10 years younger, our town looks so much more interesting and our garden looks worthy of an award. Just a bit of fun, of course. However these filters can be a false friend.
Not for the reason you might think, i.e. they give an ‘untrue’ representation of the subject matter. No, more because we look to the filter to artificially beautify what we see rather than allowing our own innate appreciation to enhance people and places we love. Remember, beauty is in the eye of the beholder.
Have you ever been moved to tears by a sunset, the light on your beloved’s hair or the smile on your toddler’s face? The difference when our own gaze brings out the innate beauty of what we see is the beauty and feeling of love and well-being is limitless. A digital filter on the other hand is, by its nature, limited.
You can look at ‘certainty’ in the same way. Although it is prized for leaders and parents and seen as vital for personal success, it can actually limit possibilities for ourselves and others and even keep things stuck, playing out in the same old ways.
What is certainty?
At this time in history, certainty seems in short supply in the world and many feel that is a bad thing. An uncertain world, you may be forgiven for thinking, is a scary world. Yet what is certainty? It is a concrete, cast iron belief in something, someone or an outcome. We talk of being certain of success, certain of something we did in the past, certain of another’s loyalty or support, certain of enjoying ourselves or being disappointed, certain of our abilities or prospects. In reality there is very little we can actually be certain about.
What is it based on?
Certainty is usually based on past experience. It comes from what we know and what we have seen. This is true when we are certain about ourselves, for instance, we might be certain we would not enjoy bungee jumping. This is most likely based on a memory of a fear of heights.
It is even more obviously based on the past when it comes to being certain about the outcome of something. Outcomes invariably depend on more than just you. We don’t operate in isolation. Every success and failure we experience has involved many others (whether we are aware of it or not). Our predictions (especially the gloomy ones) about outcomes tend to forget the interconnectedness of life.
We may feel we have no chance of promotion at work. This is based on observations about ourselves and our boss. Or we may feel certain that someone in our family will be late (because they are always late). We may feel certain that success in our business can only come if we double our efforts and work every hour available (because we have never seen a possibility for success to look any other way). These certainties come from a very limited view of life.
Why is certainty unhelpful?
Certainty is unhelpful because it isn’t based on fact. Actually we have no way of knowing how anything is going to pan out. We do not know (as a fact) what is going to happen next. We can guess. We can make an informed forecast. We can point to evidence from the past to support our prediction but none of us actually know what is coming up.
Benjamin Franklin said
“In this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes”
I would like to offer you an alternative.
“In this world nothing can be said to be certain except innate well-being and the experience of this moment.”
Your innate well-being is that part of you, that eternal essence that is undamaged and untouchable. It is beyond the physical and beyond the known. Neither the past nor the future are certain. The past exists only when we recall our thoughts about it and the future is all imagined.
Only the experience of this moment holds any truth.
Beyond that, it’s all guesswork. However this doesn’t stop us thinking we know what’s going to happen. We think we know how people are going to behave; how we are going to behave and how it will all turn out. This kind of certainty has a stale, closed feeling about it. It is not the same as an intuitive sense of the future which is impersonal, doesn’t relate to the past or to our personal thinking and has an open, curious and playful feel.
It is particularly unhelpful when we are certain of ‘bad’ outcomes whether in business, relationships or at work. Our absolute certainty that we won’t win the work, that our partner won’t have remembered to pick up the milk or that our boss will irritate us actually leaves no space for an alternative outcome.
Even when we are ‘certain’ of a positive outcome, it still closes down possibilities. Say we are certain we are going to have a successful pitch, that our friend will love the gift and our boss will give us a pay rise, we still close down the space for anything else to happen.
After all, not only can we never know what is going to happen in the next moment but also can we even really conceive of the infinite potential in every moment? I certainly can’t! There is another place to be which goes against much of our upbringing and cultural values.
What is an alternative place to inhabit?
The space of ‘don’t know’. When you see the illusory nature of certainty, of ‘knowing’ what’s coming next and acknowledge that actually you don’t know, you can’t know what’s going to happen next, you move into a different headspace. It’s not the tight, wound up, constricted head space of ‘eek I don’t know how I’m going to fix this [fill in the blank]’. It is an open, curious, playful, listening space. Into this space, interesting and magical things can happen.
If you catch yourself having thoughts like:-
- He/she never
- I always
- It never
- It won’t
- I can’t
Notice whether or not you are predicting the future. If you are, pause and reflect on whether you can really know what will happen (hint, you can’t). Then see how it feels to ask the question,
“I wonder what will happen next”
If you take away certainty don’t you lose all motivation to prepare anything?
It doesn’t stop you preparing, in fact if you apply the ‘don’t know approach’ to your preparation, you may well get fresh ideas for your presentation, bid, art project, party or holiday planning. I used to love step by step planning. It’s very satisfying and a great distraction from actually doing anything! It can become addictive. Instead what happens if you just take the very next step and be open to where that leads? You can still have your eye on the end goal but more flexibility about how you get there can throw up all kinds of interesting surprises.
So rather like innocently thinking that digital filters are the only way to enhance our photos, we can believe that certainty helps us navigate through life, when it is only useful for navigating the known. How many more possibilities might you allow in life, if you dropped certainty and embraced ‘I wonder what will happen next?’
When you see this for yourself, it can create a profound shift in your experience.
If you’d like to have a conversation about this or would like Juliet to deliver sessions on resilience and creativity in your organisation, please take a look at the SERVICES tab.
Juliet Fay is a writer, speaker and facilitator interested in pointing people towards more resilience, creativity in joy in their life and work.