Overcoming Uncertainty

I met an old friend for lunch the other day. Andrew and I have known each other since the first day of first grade — way back in 1975. “You know,” he said as we slurped down Asian noodles, “when I first reconnected with you fifteen years ago, you were pretty much the same guy you were in high school. Even five years ago, you were still that same J.D. But now you're different — in a good way. It's like you've finally grown up. What happened?”

I didn't have a good answer at the time, but I do now. What happened? I stopped being afraid of life. I decided to take charge of my own destiny instead of waiting for it to arrive. I found ways to be confident in the face of fear. In short, I learned to thrive on uncertainty.

I haven't always been willing to take risks. In fact, for most of my life I've chosen the path of least resistance. I've done what seems safest. But you know what? For most of my life, I've been fundamentally unhappy.

It was only when I decided to do something different that I was able to turn things around. And to do something different, I had to learn to accept uncertainty.

“You gain strength, courage, and confidence by every experience in which you really stop to look fear in the face…You must do the thing you think you cannot do.” — Eleanor Roosevelt

 

Turning fear and doubt into brilliance
Uncertainty by Jonathan FieldsMy colleague Jonathan Fields has a new book out that addresses this very subject. Uncertainty: Turning Fear and Doubt into Fuel for Brilliance is all about finding ways to face our fears and move beyond them, to let them make us more creative and productive. It may sound hokey, but it's not. I think the concept is brilliant.

Fields says that anything certain has already been done. To innovate, we have to embrace the unknown, but doing so takes a psychic toll.

Uncertainty is often nothing more than fear of judgment. Fields cites research that demonstrates people are less willing to take risks when they think they're going to be judged. But if you remove the possibility of evaluation, this aversion vanishes. Here's how he explains the research:

In reality, we may not be as hardwired to avoid uncertainty as we are hardwired to avoid wanting to be judged for taking the less-mainstream path and coming up empty. Fear of judgment stifles our ability to embrace uncertainty and as part of that process delivers a serious blow to our willingness to create anything that hasn't already been done and validated.

We're afraid that to try something new because we don't want to be criticized, and we don't want to fail. But nothing great is accomplished without taking risks. Uncertainty, the book, explores methods for circumventing our fear of judgment and failure.

Uncertainty isn't meant for everyone who reads Get Rich Slowly. In fact, I suspect that only a small subset of readers would find it useful. Its thesis is applicable to nearly everyone, but most of the examples are related to entrepreneurs and creative professionals. These folks should certainly give it a look. (And if you're curious about the book, by all means borrow it from the public library.)

For me, though, Uncertainty arrived in the mailbox at the perfect time. Every year or so, I need a shot in the arm to remind me how and why I've managed to create the life I enjoy today. It's not wholly by chance, but it's not because I'm better than anyone else. The real reason? I'm where I am now because I've learned to confront uncertainty instead of avoiding it.

“Do the thing you fear and keep on doing it…That is the quickest and surest way yet discovered to conquer fear.” — Dale Carnegie

 

Flaunt the imperfection
How does this relate to personal finance?

We're constantly making decisions with imperfect information. How often do you ask yourself questions like these:

  • Should I buy a Ford Focus or a Mini Cooper?
  • Should I move into an apartment or keep paying this mortgage?
  • Should I save more for retirement or take that trip to Peru?

There's no way to know the “best” answer to these questions (though, of course, in some cases the choices are clearer than others). The future is uncertain. And because of uncertainty, we second-guess ourselves, we question our financial futures.

One classic example — mentioned over and over in the comments of this blog — is saving for retirement. How much should you save? When should you start to save? To what extent should you put off enjoying today since tomorrow may never come? We don't know, and we can't know. Until somebody invents the “See the Day You Die!” machine, our decisions about retirement will be made with imperfect information.

Plus there's the paradox of choice. When we have only three options, it's easy to decide. But when we have thirty, it's tough. We're afraid we might make the wrong decision. Or a less perfect one.

Really, though, overcoming uncertainty — building confidence and destroying fear — is less a personal finance issue and more a personal development issue. (This stuff is all inter-related, though. If you improve your emotional and psychological well-being, you will improve your financial situation.) Overcoming uncertainty is about taking calculated risks in all all areas of your life — including your finances.

Further readingLong-time readers know that this is a recurring subject at Get Rich Slowly. In fact, these are some of my favorite articles:

If I could have new visitors read just three article, it'd probably be these.

 

Daring to Fail
Here's a secret: Everyone is afraid of the unknown. If you're willing to act despite uncertainty, then you're already ahead of 95% of the population. Most of those who are scared to act won't condemn you, and most of those who also act won't be critical either. In fact, from my experience, they'll probably be supportive.

It's true you'll have some critics, but even that isn't a bad thing. If a critic gives you constructive, useful feedback, she's doing you a favor. And if a critic is mean-spirited or shallow, that doesn't reflect poorly on you — it reflects poorly on him.

Take risks. Embrace uncertainty. Dare to fail. Your life will be better for it.

More about...Books, Psychology

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20's Finances
20's Finances
8 years ago

I completely agree. There is a huge tendency to stay with the safe route, but it may take away from your enjoyment in life. I’m specifically referring to career choice. A certain level of planning is important to do, but it shouldn’t keep you doing something that you hate.

slug+|+sunkcostsareirrelevant.com
slug+|+sunkcostsareirrelevant.com
8 years ago

Really good post. Overcoming fear in the face of an uncertain life and existence is true existential struggle.

A great tactic I found to start overcoming fear is to try to get rejected everyday. Ask a girl that’s out of your league out on a date. Ask someone 2 levels above you out to lunch. Ask for for a discount when you’re getting your oil changed. If you start asking, you never know what you can get out of life.

Dr. Jason Cabler (@DrCabler)
Dr. Jason Cabler (@DrCabler)
8 years ago

Excellent post! Life never changes until you take action. When you finally decide to break the safety in your life for something a little more risky, a little more uncertain. Then and only then can you get bigger payoffs. I teach participants in my Celebrating Financial Freedom course that head knowledge about how to change your financial situation is great, but you’ll never get out of debt without taking action. You have to take that first step and then keep moving forward if you want to succeed in anything new. “When you help me with money, you help the world… Read more »

Joe @ Not Your Average Joe
Joe @ Not Your Average Joe
8 years ago

“Take risks. Embrace uncertainty. Dare to fail. Your life will be better for it.”

Beautiful quote that captures life in a nutshell. Will borrow this if you don’t mind, J.D.

Mom of five
Mom of five
8 years ago

Nice post. And it got me thinking.

I would like to see a real concrete post where people talked about how much they think they need to have saved to retire comfortably.

Jacqueline Ross
Jacqueline Ross
8 years ago
Reply to  Mom of five

Totally depends on what you project your lifestyle and living expenses will be. Personally, instead of aiming for a single lump-sum that has a finite life, I like real estate, notes, businesses and other investments that have the ability to keep generating more CASH FLOW even after the initial investment. For me, to have a perpetually replenishing supply provides more security than a stockpile whose earning power decreases every time you need to make a withdrawal.

Mondo Esteban
Mondo Esteban
8 years ago

There is a small bar in my area that has this quote painted on the front door. “The biggest failure of all is to never try.” It’s a live music oriented bar

JaM
JaM
8 years ago

Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp,
Or what’s a heaven for?
– Andrea del Sarto By Robert Browning

JD had referred to this quote before, apt for this post. Fear of failure and uncertainty are the biggest hindrances to our potential.

Holly
Holly
8 years ago

Thanks. I needed to hear this today, and will definitely check out the book.

With kids and a mortgage, I am finding it harder to take risks, and often forget that safe isn’t the only way.

Megan
Megan
8 years ago
Reply to  Holly

I agree with Holly.

Once you get married (or settled down long-term with someone), or you get a house, or you have kids – you kind of stop taking risks because there’s more at stake. I have to remind myself that I need to take more risks within reason, but do it, anyway.

Kristen
Kristen
8 years ago

Articles such as this are precisely why your blog has been successful, J.D. It’s thoughtful, intimate, and inspiring. Thanks for the ‘shot in the arm’ today.

El Nerdo
El Nerdo
8 years ago

My name is El Nerdo and I approve this message.

Seriously, this is why I think we could get more posts about entrepreneurial activity. Too many people are too afraid to try and too many people want just “jobs”.

I’d definitely check out that book. I often do my best work when facing an impossible deadline (fear level=high).

Oh I love a good adventure when it makes a profit.

matt
matt
8 years ago

I love, this post.

Piccolina
Piccolina
8 years ago

Thanks for this post. I love the inspirational, bigger picture posts. This is the kind of stuff that keeps me coming back to GRS, even after I’ve reached the 4th stage of personal finance.

partgypsy
partgypsy
8 years ago

OK maybe I have a different perspective from in the past month hearing about 3 different people I knew my age or younger who have died. They did it their way, living life intensely and following their passions but perhaps not practicing the best financial or health habits. You know what? I’m glad I slowly and trudgedly got through college, and graduate school and all the other jobs where I showed up every day, did my work even if it wasn’t the most exciting while knowing about people who were living those exciting lives on the edge. I’m glad for… Read more »

Piccolina
Piccolina
8 years ago
Reply to  partgypsy

Doesn’t sound boring to me. Sounds like you are living purposefully, not out of fear.

Embracing life fully doesn’t have to look like sky diving.

partgypsy
partgypsy
8 years ago
Reply to  Piccolina

I aspire to be the best “me” even if it is not the most artistic/entreupenerial/exciting. I realize my post sounded judgmental and I didn’t intend that. Some people are made for taking great risks, and great things CAN come from that. You just have to know who you are.

Jaime
Jaime
8 years ago
Reply to  partgypsy

The writer of this article didn’t propose stupidity. Please lets use our common sense.

Justin | Mazzastick
Justin | Mazzastick
8 years ago

We need to move beyond limiting beliefs and perceptions if we want to be able to move forward in our lives.

Stephen
Stephen
8 years ago

Thanks for the post JD.

Today I’m leaving my job, by choice, and moving on to the next stage of life. Additionally, I was not selected for the one job that was in my sights, making my future plans rather uncertain.

It’s easy to get down not knowing what lies ahead, but I intend to let the excitement overpower the fear. I hope to reshape my life by making the changes required to recognize and act upon my true dreams and passions.

Jacqueline Ross
Jacqueline Ross
8 years ago

So how do you know which ‘risks’ to take and which ones to leave? And I think we have to keep in mind that the definition of risk means totally different things to different people (like the sky-diving comment!) There is no right or wrong. The first step is to NOT judge others for their choices as they are almost guaranteed to be different (sometimes incomprehensible) to our own. Each of us should be living according to our own unique individual values and priorities; that means using the resources at our disposal (including financial) to support the activities and actions… Read more »

Nancy
Nancy
8 years ago

“The first step is to NOT judge others for their choices as they are almost guaranteed to be different (sometimes incomprehensible) to our own. Each of us should be living according to our own unique individual values and priorities” So, I respect the message you’re conveying and felt this way too until I realized that it was contradictory. If I’m going to say that each of us should live according to our individual values, I have to accept that some people WILL judge others, and I have no right to tell them not to do so. I think what is… Read more »

Dogs or Dollars
Dogs or Dollars
8 years ago

I love this post. A great way to start my Friday.

I’ve been meditating a lot on the path of least resistance, because thats definitely what I followed to where I currently am in my life. Right now my biggest fear is being stuck here, and letting another decade pass without changing my life.

This is a much needed reminder. Thank you JD.

El Nerdo
El Nerdo
8 years ago

completely off-topic: [email protected] BOA debit fees

Jacq
Jacq
8 years ago

One thing I’m very certain of is that Fields is going to have a bestseller on his hands thanks to having an A-list blogger line-up of 5 star reviews already up on Amazon, as well as recent guest posts or reviews on most major personal development oriented websites. I kind of hate that type of Amazon marketing even though it obviously works. It’s made me not trust the review system like I used to. That’s the kind of uncertainty I can do without. I deal with it by waiting to order a book until some objective reviews roll in. He… Read more »

SEinSF
SEinSF
8 years ago
Reply to  Jacq

The library is free. No need to play the amazon review game.

Jacq
Jacq
8 years ago
Reply to  SEinSF

Unfortunately my library doesn’t stock every book available at Amazon, even through inter-library loan.

Mary
Mary
8 years ago

“the best way to predict your future, is to create it”

Linear Girl
Linear Girl
8 years ago

I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately as I’m trying to convince myself to make some big changes that have a financial risk but I hope will increaase happiness. I haven’t yet decided whether to try, but just this morning I decided to make a detailed plan about how I might do it. I discovered the benefits of taking chances by playing Spider Solitaire. I have always been incredibly risk averse and I kept losing at the game. I started taking chances (in this virtual and therefore no *real* risk scenario) and I started winning. A lot. It opened… Read more »

retirebyforty
retirebyforty
8 years ago

It’s tough to embrace uncertainty when you have a family to provide for. It’s best to do this when you’re young, but if you’re older and have more responsibilities, you can still do it. It just take more planning and sacrifice.

SEinSF
SEinSF
8 years ago
Reply to  retirebyforty

I think it is even more important to embrace uncertainty and face/overcome fears when you have a family. You have an obligation to be a model to your children. Don’t teach them to follow the most common path and let fear rule their lives. One of the best way to provide for your family is to live an exceptional life and to be happy and healthy. Don’t teach your children to let fear rule them.

El Nerdo
El Nerdo
8 years ago
Reply to  SEinSF

Yes yes yes yes yes yes yes.

And overprotective parents don’t do their children any favors.

Krantcents
Krantcents
8 years ago

There is always something special when you overcome an obstacle. You feel as though you accomplished something.

Carla
Carla
8 years ago

For me its also knowing that whatever I aspire to MAY NOT WORK. My business didn’t work = FAIL. Career path halted due to health issues (hopefully temporary) = FAIL…and so on.

I think the challenge is trying again and again and again. In the meantime, bills, housing, health expenses, etc has to be paid, and day-to-day life goes on.

Hopefully this book addresses possible scenarios when you’ve already fallen flat on your face…several times.

margot
margot
8 years ago

One of the best ways to build this skill set is international travel in challenging countries without a tour group and without planning everything out in advance. You’ll be just fine, you’ll figure out what to do, everything will work out somehow, and you’ll have a great time. And if you weren’t okay with uncertainty before, you’ll learn to embrace it!

Cat
Cat
8 years ago
Reply to  margot

Then when you accidentally step over a border and end up in prison for two years, you would have wished you did a little more planning rather than just doing everything willy-nilly like you’re safe at home.

margot
margot
8 years ago
Reply to  Cat

Wow, Cat. With that negative attitude, you must love certainty and staying home on your couch. Given that I’ve spent about 5 years (spread over many trips) traveling to over 45 countries with no major disasters yet and little to no planning before landing in the country (including almost never even having hotel reservations), I think I’ll be just fine. So will just about every other traveler who embraces uncertainty. Yes, if you’re going to travel near war zones or plan to hike along borders with no idea when you’re crossing and meanies ready to arrest you on the spot,… Read more »

Maggie
Maggie
8 years ago
Reply to  margot

Well said, margot. Those hikers in no way represent the huge numbers of independent travellers who don’t do tours and masses of advance planning and who get along just fine.

Cat
Cat
8 years ago
Reply to  margot

Why does it have to be all or nothing, Margot? How about a little balance?

Jaime
Jaime
8 years ago

There really is no such thing as a sure thing. You’re right J.D….I have been following the path of least resistance and I’m not happy. I’ll be buying this book. I really need something like this.

Most people are willing to take the safer path, that’s why the few people that who do take risks are happier and have more affluent financial lives. How long can we keep living life in fear?

Lori+Blatzheim
Lori+Blatzheim
8 years ago

I absolutely agree that uncertainty may prevent people from reaching their potential. It takes a strong person to ignore the prospect of being criticized for acting differently or for failing while pursuing a personal project. It makes me wonder what would have happened if Bell, Edison, Ford, or the Wright brothers stopped in mid stream. Think of what we would have lost. They had the goal, the drive, the stamina, and the courage to follow their thoughts and dreams despite the criticism of their peers. You wonder what this concept has to do with finance. Here is one example. It… Read more »

Mr. Frugal
Mr. Frugal
8 years ago

Uncertainty is the only sure thing. When you start to take things for granted you end up getting taken advantage of.

Hope for the best and plan for the worst. And do everything you can (like building up savings) to swing the odds in your favor.

Natalie @ Mango
Natalie @ Mango
8 years ago

Best part of the post: “This stuff is all inter-related, though. If you improve your emotional and psychological well-being, you will improve your financial situation.” You’re so right. Take care of yourself, mentally, physically, emotionally, and spiritually and all aspects of your life will automatically improve. At Mango Money we promote taking care of your finances, of course, but also taking care of yourself. For example, here’s a post about exercising on a budget. This might not sound related, but it’s all part of the package– take care of yourself, be kind to yourself, and the rest will follow. Check… Read more »

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