Defensive Pessimism and the Case for Uncertainty

I am unemployed with no job lined up, and it scares me a little.

No, being unemployed was not by design. I signed a contract for work with another company and resigned from my job. And that didn’t work out.

After I got over the initial shock of having everything I thought I wanted (and had in my pocket) taken away from me, I began the arduous task of a job hunt without the luxury of having income from still being employed. It is really, like starting and running a startup, you know your burn rate and you know the runway you have before you need to jump at the next opportunity to avoid closing your doors. And it is especially hard for me because I am someone who depends heavily on routine and stability. I make plans, and when plans fall through, it leaves me feeling bereft and oddly like as if I had my childhood blanket thrown away. It is no one’s fault, this weakness of mine, the world is and never will be a place of permanent stability.

Change is the only constant, I tell myself, it’ll be okay.

One of my goals in 2013 was to look for the good no matter how bad circumstances appear to be, and I have been practising that thought process since then. There are things in our lives that may appeal as trials at first, but very often, I find that these things that shake up my beliefs of the world at large allow me to find out new things about myself and new directions to take.

Having a bit of uncertainty in life is a good thing, it allows you to reevaluate the direction you steered your life in and whether or not it is something you want to continue with for the next five to ten years. I find that shaking things up a bit removes one from the comfort zone and it becomes a lot easier to try new things and “pivot”, as we like to say in startup world.

I used to be a very insecure person, always worrying about the next job, the next semester, the next person I am going to meet. I get this paralysing anxiety attacks that seemingly come out from nowhere, and I usually try to escape by reading, watching long TV series and playing iOS games that allow me to forget the real world for stretches of time at one go.

This time, though, I allowed myself to truly experiene the emotions I go through when I am in this period of uncertainty. I started reading books and articles about the status of uncertainty and the best ways to cope with them. Out of all the methods I have evaluated, the one that I felt was most useful was the theory of defensive pessimism. It is a very straightforward mental process. You take the one thing that you are the most anxious about, and you list the worst possible outcomes, and then you think of possible solutions for those outcomes and list (again) the next steps to follow if the worst possible outcomes came to pass and you had to continue with life. I find that this reduces my anxiety on a large scale, if not completely.

The results of my defensive pessimism usually tells me that those solutions may require some huge changes in my thinking and my way of life. They may require me to rethink some of my medium-term goals and new ways of achieving them. The important takeaway from this, though, is that things are rarely as bad or impossible as it seems. There is always a way out, we just need to harden our wills and see things from perspectives we never truly allowed ourselves to see from before.

Being the impatient person I am, my greatest annoyance at the moment is that I cannot skip ahead through the uncertainty into a week from now when I will know what my options are. The period of waiting, is possibly more agonising than any mental torture in the history of humankind (I exaggerate a lot, please forgive me.). I just can’t wait for this to be over so that I can start planning and moving forward with my life.

This state of being in limbo may be uncomfortable, but it is very often in ths state of mind that I learn about what I truly want and where I want my life to go.

Embrace uncertainty. It is worth it (always in hindsight).

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