Giving Up on Certainty

Most of us crave certainty, but there’s precious little of it to be had. In the vast majority of situations, we are forced to make do instead with probabilities, guesses, trade-offs, and outright surprises.

But this doesn’t have to be a bad thing. Sometimes, giving up on certainty allows you to operate more spontaneously, with greater freedom to sense what’s going on in your work and your life and to respond in the moment more effectively – in short , to be more productive.

I’m thinking particularly about two forms of uncertainty:

Give Up on Expectations

I’ve long felt that expectations are seeds of disappointment and diminished satisfaction in a great many situations. Trying to anticipate what’s going to happen is really just a fruitless attempt to narrow the range of potential happenings and hope for some certainty.

To understand why expectations tend to hurt more than they help, imagine expecting to get a pony for your birthday.

  • If your expectations prove excessive, you’ll most likely feel disappointed. Even if something else wonderful happens, you may still feel somewhat disappointed you didn’t get what you originally expected.
  • If your expectations do come true, you’ll most likely feel less than fully satisfied because you’ve already experienced some of your satisfaction before it was actually warranted.

Now imagine having no expectations about your birthday present.

  • Whatever you get will be a surprise and a joy.

This same dynamic is operative in a great many situations that have nothing to do with birthdays and ponies. Meetings, social situations, new assignments, and new experiences are among the many situations in which you may tend to feel safer when you approach them protected by the comfort of pseudo-certain expectations.

To give up on certainty and go into these and other situations without expectations takes a certain amount of courage and self-confidence. But doing so makes it easier and better for you to:

  • Open your senses to their widest and to feel in great depth what is really going on around you.
  • Tap into your skills, knowledge, experience, and creativity to respond in the moment with your best.

This open-minded approach is likely to elicit your most honest experiences, extract your best performances, and – as a result – produce your best results.

Give Up on To-Do Lists

We all have a great many tasks, projects, and goals we’d like to accomplish – large and small. But when you put these performance targets on a to-do list, you transform them into burdens. And since you can never totally clear your to-do list, it becomes a permanent emotional and psychological weight you’ll always carry into the future.

I’m thinking of a metaphor to help explain this: I had a high school chum who played on the school’s basketball team. Every day, he would strap weights to his ankles and walk around for hours, train, and even practice with the team. The idea was to strengthen his muscles and make himself feel lighter during games – which he played without the weights.

But imagine if he never took off those weights. Instead of helping him play better, those weights would markedly impair his ability to perform.

I’m saying a to-do list is akin to those ankle weights.

It’s OK to have a list of tasks, projects, and goals you’d like to accomplish. But if that list is always before you, always constricting your choices and reminding you of all you haven’t yet accomplished, it turns into a burden that will actually sap your strength and reduce your results.

Now consider the alternative: if you give up the certainty of a list you must accomplish and treat it instead as a menu of possibilities from which you are free to choose – and which you can even disregard from time to time – you’ll be strengthened by the preparation it took to compile that list, you’ll feel more energetic and lighter, and you’ll be better able to apply that strength, energy, and lightness to improve your performance in the moment.

It’s only a metaphor, of course, but it aptly describes what happens when you give up on certainty: You will almost always benefit from the freedom and productivity that becomes available in the moment, as you openly follow your heart or your hunches in pursuit of an outcome you desire.

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