How to kick your addiction to certainty

Hi, my name is Chyonne, and I’m an addict.

I’m not talking about drugs, alcohol or cigarettes. Not gambling or video games either. Not even online shopping.

My addiction is far more insidious: I’m addicted to certainty. And I suspect that I’m not the only one.

Why is this a problem?

It has been said that humans perceive change as linear – we see it as occurring at a constant rate over time. But, as futurist Ray Kurzweil points out, technology is bringing about changes at an exponential rate. Kurzweil calls it the Law of Accelerating Returns. To put it simply, we are living in a time of unprecedented change, which brings with it unprecedented uncertainty.

The problem is that most people don’t like uncertainty. Our survival instincts are based on knowing whether the long cylindrical object ahead of us is a dead tree branch or a snake. And if we’re not sure, then let’s assume it’s a snake. Certainty can save lives.

Now that's fine if you’re dealing with a life or death situation. But when the ‘threat’ arises out of an organisational or personal change, the effects of creating certainty prematurely can be disastrous.

Consider these examples:

  • A manager, under pressure to recruit for a critical role in her team, ignores her misgivings and recruits a candidate that she considers ‘coachable’, only to find that the candidate is a poor cultural fit and doesn’t make it past the probation period.
  • A colleague blurts out an ill-considered answer to a question and spends the next five minutes backtracking, because he's too uncomfortable with the silence to pause and think before speaking.
  • A person routinely sabotages her romantic prospects by insisting on knowing whether an evening out is ‘a date’ or ‘just friends’, creating unnecessary pressure that forces the conclusion towards the latter. (To be fair, this was over 10 years ago!)

These situations (and many more like them) occur because we are addicted to certainty.

Why do we crave certainty?

From a psychological perspective, uncertainty exerts an enormous amount of pressure on the human psyche and tends to trigger a fear-based response.

The obvious way to counteract this is to move towards certainty, in whatever form it might take. In doing this, the risk (as illustrated above) is that we may grasp for answers and solutions prematurely, without allowing events (and our full understanding of them) to unfold naturally. It’s a bit like “better the devil you know than the angel you don’t”. We then justify the disappointment of an unsatisfactory outcome with the marginal relief provided by the certainty.

How can we learn to embrace uncertainty?

Over the past five years, I've been training myself to 'embrace uncertainty'. I've had to, because I love change. And by far the most powerful technique I've learned for dealing with uncertainty is to cultivate curiosity. I say "cultivate" because I believe that humans are naturally curious, although many of us are trained out of it through our formal education.

The field of ontological coaching* (which focuses on a person’s ‘way of being’ as the key driver of their success) proposes that curiosity is a natural consequence of accepting uncertainty – that is, when we accept that we don’t know the outcome of a particular situation, this naturally leads us to feel curious. On the other hand, when we oppose uncertainty, this leads us to experience anxiety or some variation of it (e.g. fear, worry, stress).

The reason that curiosity is so powerful is that it opens us up – physiologically and psychologically – to see the possibilities around us. Young children are the perfect example of this. Ever notice how much they notice?

Anxiety, on the other hand, literally causes the brain to narrow its focus. During periods of great change, anxiety can cost us dearly by causing us to miss opportunities that could lead to a better long-term outcome.

Try this simple experiment to experience the difference for yourself:

Go for a short walk at lunchtime and consciously shift your mindset between anxiety and curiosity. To generate anxiety, focus on a problem in your life that you don’t yet know how to solve. Then shift to curiosity by saying to yourself, “I wonder what will happen next.”

What do you notice?

How can we build the curiosity habit?

An essential part of cultivating curiosity is to have faith. I’m not necessarily talking about the religious form of faith, although I do wonder whether people who believe in a higher power have a leg up on this one. Faith could be faith in a God (of your choosing) or the Universe, or it could simply be faith in yourself – faith that you can handle whatever happens.

Beyond this, we can also learn to value curiosity in others. While it’s tempting to respect a leader or colleague who demonstrates certainty, the world has become too complex for that. A person who is willing to be openly curious, consider a situation from different perspectives and be flexible in taking action is more likely to generate a better outcome than one who jumps to conclusions for the sake of certainty.

Wherever there is uncertainty in your life, I hope that these insights will help you to navigate it more effectively – and even learn to enjoy it!

"Once we believe in ourselves, we can risk curiosity, wonder, spontaneous delight, or any experience that reveals the human spirit." (E. E. Cummings)

*The ideas in this post are based on the work of Alan Sieler of the Newfield Institute, which promotes and teaches ontological coaching in Australia and overseas.