Uncertainty is a Gift

The world is full of uncertainty. I see this every day when talking with my students who are eager to carve a path to a meaningful and secure future, and don’t know where to start.

For most of us, leaving school is stressful. For the first time in our lives, there are an endless set of choices, and nobody can tell us if we are making the right decision. Although other people will happily give us advice about what to d0 (e.g. “plastics”) it is ultimately our responsibility to pick our own direction.

Here’s the secret that few people tell you… There is no right decision. If your first role after school isn’t a good match, try something new. And, if the next one doesn’t fit, try something else. And, if that role sucks, quit! Continue doing this until you find something that is a great match… Rinse and Repeat. Rinse and Repeat. Rinse and Repeat.

This is similar to dating… It is very unlikely that you will fall in love and get married to the first person you date. The best chance to find a compatible match is to meet lots of people. The dating process is usually filled with false starts and disappointments, but you will never be successful unless you embrace the process of discovery and accept the uncertainty.

As a personal example, I literally changed careers — not just jobs — every two years after I graduated from school until I finally found a career that fit. I was 41 years old! Most important, none of my prior experiences were a waste of time, even though they weren’t perfect. Each added to my toolbox, providing a wealth of skills that I use every day. Most other people have a similar story, and their career path makes much more sense when viewed through the rear view mirror.

There is another secret that few people share… The uncertainty that we face when we leave school never evaporates. There is uncertainty at each turn of our lives — when we start a new job, launch a new company, begin a new relationship, have a child, or retire. Each of these decisions and actions opens the door to considerable uncertainty — and opportunity!

When I was in graduate school, I had a small notebook that I filled with my poetry. I titled the book “Experimental Artifacts” since the poems I wrote in the book represented the flip side of the organized scientific experiments I was performing in my neuroscience laboratory. One of the poems, called “Entropy,” is about the process of constantly reinventing oneself, of always changing the game plan, and taking risks without knowing what will happen. I wrote that poem when I was 25 years old. At that time, the future was filled with great uncertainty since I had no idea how my life and career would unfold. I didn’t want to continue as a bench scientist, and didn’t have a clue where to go next. I wasn’t sure if uncertainty was a positive or a negative thing, and often measured myself again those who seemed to know exactly where they were going.

Nearly 35 years later, I fully understand that uncertainty is a gift. The opposite of Uncertainty is Certainty… Would you really want a detailed script for your life, knowing exactly what will happen next month, next year, and next decade? For most people the answer is “ No.”

At the core, uncertainty leads to choices. It leads to opportunities. It leads to surprises! Uncertainty is the essence of life, a fire that sparks innovation, and is an engine that drives us forward.