“The mistake is thinking that there can be an antidote to the uncertainty.”
“It’s only after you’ve lost everything that you’re free to do anything.”
Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt; Fight Club)
Letting go is the only way to get everything you want.
Loss creates courage. Courage is your ability to confront fear, pain, danger, or intimidation. Confrontation is the most important part of the equation. To be courageous, you have to confront something that makes you uncomfortable. In other words, you have to risk experiencing something painful. Most often, this risk involves loss. Whether it’s you’re your health, money, relationships, status, or peace of mind, you will have to put it on the line to be courageous. But it’s not the loss of these things that people fear the most, it’s the loss of control over these things. The period between not knowing and knowing an outcome is what keeps people from achieving their goals. Uncertainty can be paralyzing. Refusing to let go of the things you value most can hold you back. The only way to fulfill your purpose in life is to courageously lose control.
Processes are painful, not endpoints. Understand: the possibility of losing something is more painful than actually losing it. You’ve heard that the most exciting part of achieving your goal is the journey before the win. In the same way, the most dreadful part of missing out on a goal is the journey before the loss. Dealing with a definite situation is not difficult. You can overcome anything once you know what you’re dealing with. Every day people are fired from their jobs, dumped from bad relationships, or diagnosed with illnesses only to discover a whole new world of opportunities in front of them. After months and months of anxiety, these people lose the things they’ve been so afraid of losing. The loss itself gives them a foothold to take action from. Now, they can finally move forward, whether it’s by starting their own business, going back to school, finding someone new, or living like there’s no tomorrow. The endpoint is what allows them increase happiness and improve confidence. It’s the process of losing, the lack of control before the endpoint, that hurts. The problem is that most people completely freeze up during this period of uncertainty. They become tense and stop taking risks. By trying to control the wrong parts of the situation, they spin out of control. As a result, they become victims of circumstance, missing out on chances to correct course.
Playing It Safe Is Irrational
The quickest way to lose control is to try to control everything. If you want to accomplish anything great in life, you are going to have to put yourself in uncontrolled environments. The key is learning how to think and act clearly in these environments. In high school and college, I had a tendency to tense up before important wrestling matches. During the early rounds of a big tournament, I was relaxed and fluid. I would wrestle well and feel great. But during the later rounds, whether it was the quarters, semis, or finals, I would become rigid and immobile. I would breath shallower and get tired easier. I would also be less aggressive, conserving my energy for some unknown moment. One the other hand, the best wrestlers would get looser as the tournament went on. They would open up more and take bigger risks during important matches. What was my problem? The problem was I was trying to control too many things. Instead of being present in the match, I was focused on what could go wrong. I was trying to control problems that didn’t exist. This distracted me from the one thing I actually had control over: myself.
One stroke could be the difference between achieving your goal and not achieving your goal. In golf, “par” is the number of strokes a first-class player should normally require for a particular hole, a “birdie” is playing a hole with a score of one stroke under par (good), and a “bogey” is playing a hole with a score of one stroke over par (bad). A recent study by two professors at the University of Pennsylvania showed that even the world’s best Pro golfers are so consumed with avoiding bogeys that they make putts for birdie less often than identical-length putts for par. In other words, Pro golfers play it safe when they have two strokes to make par versus when they have only one stroke. The study analyzed precise data on more than 1.6 million Pro Golf Tour putts, finding that this preference for avoiding a negative (bogey) over gaining a positive (birdie) costs the average pro golfer one stroke per tournament. This doesn’t seem like much until you take into account that the top golfers on the Champions Tour are usually within one or two strokes of each other, and the average purse for the winner is 2 million dollars.
Risk intolerance is a double-edged sword that drives people to play it safe. This intolerance is what makes you unnecessarily conserve your efforts until the last moment, and it’s what makes you freeze up during that last moment. The only way to accomplish bigger and better things in life is to become increasingly tolerant of risk. This is easier said than done. Risk intolerance is connected to our deep-seeded fear of the unknown. Human beings naturally fear uncertainty. After all, it’s the unknown that brings us the most pain. Whether it’s a storm you’re not prepared for, a disease you can’t cure, or a layoff you didn’t see coming, it can knock you on your ass. Unknown territory hits hard. But it also breeds victory. Without stepping into the unknown, nothing great would have ever been accomplished. Uncertainty precedes all achievement. This includes going to the Moon, creating a vaccine, building a skyscraper, or winning an Olympic gold medal. More practically, it includes starting your own business, getting back in shape, or finding your soul mate. Overcoming uncertainty is necessary for anyone who wants to generate influence, improve self confidence, and develop leaderships skills. The best things in life involve risk. You have to learn to tolerate it.
Control Is An Illusion
Get in bed with uncertainty. Fear of the unknown is something you have to push against every single day. Otherwise, this fear will slowly settle you into a nice comfortable box. You’ll coast from one small challenge to the next, pretending to give everything but secretly holding back. The worst part is, you’ll never really know what you have inside of you. You will never really know where you stand. It’s you versus life. The only way to win is to not be afraid of losing. Once you stop letting go and reaching for more, life takes over. Life will put you in a corner and keep you there permanently if you let it. The time to fight mediocrity and a middle-age compromise is right now. Stop reserving your energy for some imaginary moment. Your moment is here. Let go. Put yourself out there. Dive into unknown waters. Act before you are ready. Most people refuse to risk anything significant unless they are guaranteed a victory. But risks and guarantees are mutually exclusive. They can’t occur at the same time. Learn to give without a guarantee. Doing so will help you boost self-confidence and improve your self-esteem.
Roll the dice. Gambling studies show that most people overestimate the amount of control they have in uncontrollable situations. One study had two groups roll a single, six-sided die over and over until the die landed on three different numbers. Then, the people in both groups were given $100 and asked to bet on whether or not they would roll one of their three numbers on the next throw. Whatever money they didn’t bet would be placed on the other three numbers that were not on their lists. The only difference between the two groups was that each person in the first group was told specifically that the outcome depended on his roll of the dice, while people in the second group were told collectively that the outcome depended on a subject’s roll of the dice. As a result, the people in the first group bet 20% more money on hitting their numbers than the people in the second group. Simply telling someone he was directly responsible for the next roll made him feel more in control of the outcome. Of course, the odds never changed; they were always 50-50.
Procedures are false prophets. The illusion of control is a psychological effect where the more control a person has over a procedure, the more control he thinks he has over an uncontrollable outcome. Associating a specific procedure or skill to an uncertain situation can be empowering. To a point, there’s nothing wrong with this. Problems occur when you move beyond empowerment to evading reality. For example, experiments presented in the American Journal Of Sociology found that when rolling dice in a craps game at a casino, people throw harder when they need high numbers and softer when they need low numbers. The average person believes that manipulating his craps procedure, or how hard he throws the dice, will get him the numbers he wants. Using procedure to blunt the pain of the unknown is one of the reasons why people become superstitious or develop obsessive-compulsive disorders. On a more practical level, it’s why people occupy themselves with meaningless busywork instead of tackling real problems. Understand: some situations are outside of your control. But this doesn’t mean that you avoid these situations. It means you recognize which parts of the situation are unknowable and stay within on your circle of influence. Of course, the size of your circle will depend on the details of the situation. The key is that you can always generate influence over two things: your attitude and your attention.
Presence Overpowers Risk
Courage can be manipulated. Achieving your goal and fulfilling your purpose in life requires calculated risk, not recklessness. It’s not enough to courageously take a risk, you have to courageously take the right risk. There is absolutely no value in taking uncalculated risks. Failing to act with foresight is lazy, sloppy, and self-defeating. Yet, most people throw foresight and calculation out the window once their emotions get involved. Emotions and risk management don’t mix. Fear and anger are the two emotions most responsible for sabotaging clarity during uncertain situations. Fear keeps you from taking the right kinds of risks. Frustration makes you take the wrong kinds of risks. Studies out of the University of California show that fearful people make pessimistic judgments of future events and are less likely to take risks. The more vivid and immediate the potential negative outcome, the more they will try to avoid the risk. On the other hand, frustrated people make optimistic judgments about future events and are more likely to take risks. People who experienced “frustrated anger” were even more likely to participate in high-risk events, a choice authors categorize as “self-defeating”.
Control your attitude. Emotions color your perception. There is no way to get around this truth. But this doesn’t mean you should start negating your emotions; it means you should start choosing your emotions. Decide which emotions to express and when to express them. Rather than letting fear keep you from taking rational risks, use fear to keep you from taking irrational risks. Instead of letting your frustration make reckless decisions for you, use frustration to power you through logical decisions. The only way to do this is to be present during the actual decision process. When deciding whether or not to take a risk, identify everything the risk could bring you. Then, compare these prizes with what you currently have. Do not compare them to what you would have in the future. The latter is called counterfactual thinking. Counterfactual thinking occurs when decision-makers compare a possible result of a decision against what could have happened, rather than to their current state. For example, people on a game show who could win a million dollars or end up with nothing base their decision on the possible loss of the hoped-for prize, rather than on the fact that they would have no less money than they started with. Considering what they could lose instead of what they could gain initiates their fear response. For any risky situation, the best strategy is to compare what you could gain to what you have now.
Control your attention. Presence will give you the clarity you need to identify the right risk and the courage you need to face the uncertainty that follows. If you find yourself in an ambivalent situation, the quickest way to regain your presence of mind is to change your focus. First, focus on your physiology. Take a few deep breaths and think deeply about each breath. Focus on what you are seeing right in front of you (what color are the walls around you?) and what you are hearing right now (can you hear the heater or air conditioner humming?). This will bring your attention back to ground zero. Second, focus on the controllable elements of the equation, not the uncontrollable elements. Don’t retreat to the safety of meaningless procedures that merely make you feel in control. Concentrate on the things you can actually change. Third, focus on what you could gain. Give your attention to the experience you want to have, not the experience you don’t want to have. Remember, vividness and immediacy affect your emotions. Use this to your advantage. See yourself achieving your goal in every detail. Feel the emotions you would feel if you achieved it right now. Once you make your decision, use dissatisfaction and healthy levels of frustration to drive you past the uncertain parts of the situation. In my next post, I will discuss the five power emotions crucial to increasing your motivation and magnetism.