Seek clarity not certainty

When I was young, I remember Sunday afternoons companionably watching Westerns on TV with my Grandad. Large plains, swirling dust and empty vistas abounded. We loved the action. Most of the films followed the archetypal pattern. A hero. The importance of honour and sacrifice. Treasure and gold. The wild west. And a lasting image of the circling wagons, trying to protect the goodies from the baddies.

That image of wagons circling round and around, in a futile attempt to ward off something bad, seems relevant in the current climate of uncertainty.

Every conversation I have at the moment, the topic of certainty comes up. We look for certainty about our health. Certainty about our jobs. Certainty about our finances. Certainty about our schools. Certainty about how we can socialise. Certainty about whether life will ever be the same.

The list could go on.

The drive to seek certainty is inherently human, whichever theory of human drives you subscribe to, be it SCARF, Four Drive Theory or ACT’s 6 Yearnings etc. Seeking certainty is in our metaphorical DNA.

Right now, many things are uncertain. And when we don’t have certainty, we really notice how disconcerted we feel. We notice the bubbling anxiety and fear. We are left tired and drained and replay the story that “No-one is telling me anything!”

We might then discern that we can’t concentrate on other things. We see the negative not the positive in situations. We start to make predictions about what may or may not happen in the future. We hear ourselves say “I don’t know what’s happening. What am I not being told?” Everything suddenly seems unfamiliar. And all in the service of claiming some control to get us back to certainty.

Certainty is paralysing

Yet seeking certainty is paralysing. When we need certainty in every aspect of our life, we become so entangled that we stop doing things – whether they are things we like or simply things we just can do right now.

If we succumb to the grip of certainty, our life becomes smaller. We start to parcel up our days and our actions like a set of insurance policies – small and protective. Just like the wagons in those old Westerns, we circle around and around the parts of our life that we want to control or be sure of. When certainty doesn’t come, the wagons of fear and anxiety keep us going in ever decreasing circles. We stop taking action, waiting for that elusive certainty to arrive.

The truth is, certainty is just an illusion. We think certainty means we are in the driving seat. But it’s like navigating small safe roads, in a single predetermined direction, roads that only take you where you have already been. We never have complete certainty. 

Seek clarity not certainty

In the coming weeks, if you can drop your vice like grip on certainty and control, you have space to seek clarity instead. Gaining clarity at work (or in other aspects of your life) is linked to a number of positive wellbeing outcomes such as a reduction in anxiety, depressive symptoms and work-family challenges.

Gaining clarity is active.

For example, instead of trying to get certainty on whether you will have a job in the future, ask these questions to gain clarity:

  • What actions and decisions are my business making about jobs?
  • What’s the timescale for decisions?
  • Who is making the decision?
  • What input do I have?
  • What are the criteria for the decision?
  • What are the options for me right now?

Keep asking clarifying questions.

Then focus on what you can do today based on this information. You can update your Linked-in profile. You can learn a new skill. You can do one thing that is important to you today that moves you toward who you want to be. You don’t need certainty for any of these.

Seeking clarity, not certainty, means those wagons of anxiety and fear can stop circling around you. Life opens up. You move towards what’s important. You step forward and take action today. Tomorrow you can ask again for more clarity.

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