This week in Sunday Life I drop certainty anchors

By mind on fire

So lately I’ve become increasingly distrustful of the overly certain.

When someone puffs out their chest at the head of a dinner table to emphatically declare climate change isn’t happening or that their son will grow up to follow Collingwood or that the only smoked small goods worth buying are from such-and-such-purveyor-of-such-things, it sets off alarm bells. Because nothing is certain any more. No one knows anything for sure.

We can’t be certain we’ll knock off work at 5 tomorrow or that we’ll be having Irish stew on Wednesday night or that our plane will turn up. The only certainty, beyond death, is uncertainty. Oh, and the fact that uncertainty in the world is on the up and up.

So when a leader or some blinkered commentator issues a black or white pronouncement these days I immediately think, “Hmmm, you’re sooo struggling with the inevitable anxiety of these doubtful times”. Far from giving them credibility, their surety comes across as cringefully out of step. As evolutionary epistemologist Jeremy Sherman wrote recently, today “self-certainty is weakly correlated with veracity.”

Uncertainty is the new fear. Twenty years ago we felt fear and did it anyway.

Now we accept we don’t know, and use this to humbly grow ourselves forward. 

Or at least we do if we know what’s good for us. The research shows, over and over, that uncertainty – or an ability to flow with it – goes hand in hand with true creative success. It’s the very act of being in the unknown that sees us strive to know more, and thus stumble upon fresh ideas.

What distinguishes the new entrepreneurs from the rest of us who sit back waiting for our “moment” is an appreciation that we can no longer wait for a perfect understanding of a situation before acting. As Jonathan Fields, author of new book Uncertainty, reasons, “The only time we have perfect understanding before launching into something is when it’s already been done before”.

I spoke to Fields this week. He became so fascinated by this new not-knowing that he studied hundreds of successful creatives to determine what they were doing differently, culminating in his book, published this month. What did he find? “Happy, successful entrepreneurs ritualize everything in their lives but their creative work.”

That is, they eat the same breakfast every day, at the same time, they wear the same clothes, they do their emails at the same (finite) time of the day and buy the same laundry powder. At every turn, they banalise the minutiae of their lives, taking out as much unpredictability as possible.

Which is to say, they dropped as many “certainty anchors” around them as possible. These myriad little kite strings of certainty form a “psychic bedrock”, says Fields, holding us firm so we can then fly creatively and take exciting, brave risks in our work. “We can work comfortably with uncertainty when we know we’re grounded and safe in the basic parts of our lives.”

It’s like Mr Squiggle – he can only do his crazy squiggles when he has Miss Jane there to grab his ankle and steadily drag him back to earth from one of his jangly space walks. “Oh Miss Jane, Miss Jane, thank you Miss Jane!”.

I come across this phenomenon repeatedly in this weekly journey to make life better. I mean, it was only the other week I observed that successful people eat boring breakfasts. And every single productivity guru I’ve met has told me they follow a strict morning routine. And I can now see why. These rituals serve as a Miss Jane to their inner Mr Squiggles. And they enable them to prioritise the important, productive uncertainties.

Chatting to Fields I became aware of how often my anxiety around uncertainty stalls me from creating freely. I also became aware of how much banal uncertainty I surround myself with – I’m always running late for flights, I chop and change my morning routine and can never get to bed at a regular hour. The two tendencies are clearly connected. I think I actively seek uncertainty because routine somehow seems boring. But Field’s angle on the issue shifts this. I can see now the worth of keeping the unimportant stuff safe and predictable and, ok, boring. It’s so my kite can soar high.

What are you like with fueling uncertainty in your life? Do it too much? Is it make everything less certain and less anchored?

 

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