To Bail or Not to Bail: know your patterns of uncertainty

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It was in those moments between sleep and waking that I first noticed the feeling. It was one part fear and one part exhaustion. I felt myself realize what the day ahead of me held, and then retreat back into dreams and sleep. I didn’t want to face the day.

You would think that my day was full of high pressure meetings and heavy conversations, but it wasn’t. It was quite the opposite. It was empty. The day was blank, and that, for me, can be the scariest kind of day.

Many days are blank slates for me and most of my activity is self-initiated. It’s great to have this much control and freedom, yet it can be overwhelming. What I’ve learned is that I have patterns of uncertainty that I play out. It goes like this:

I want to have more space for my thoughts and desires so I choose to enter into uncertainty. I don’t mind the idea of uncertainty as much as some. I like the thrill of it: anything could happen and something will happen (for good or ill). Uncertainty is a bit like a roller coaster ride—in the dark. It is like Space Mountain— there will be twists and turns and you won’t know what’s coming, but if you stick it out, you will come to the end safe and sound.

As much as I like the idea of uncertainty, my gut tells me to run away from it. So often I think about how much easier it would be if I just had a “real job” with a supervisor who would tell me everything I needed to do. Then I would always know what happens next and I wouldn’t worry about paying the bills (my imaginary job is pretty cushy). But I also know that I’m choosing a different route to lead to a different destination. I know I have an impact to make, and the uncertainty that I face in knowing how to succeed or fail is a way toward that end— that impact.

The question is: will I stick it out or will I bail because of the anxiety of the unknown?

We only enter seasons of uncertainty for a reason. Whether it’s quitting a job, starting a new job, working on a creative project, or moving to a new city, we enter into uncertainty on purpose— with some hope for what may come. That hope is what pushes us to take the risk: you quit the job in hopes of a healthier work environment, you start a job in hopes of finding a better fit, you create something risky in hopes of impacting people, or you move to a new city in hopes of new adventures, new community, and new possibilities. If it wasn’t for the hope, you’d never even think of taking the leap in the first place.

Back to the question: will you stick it out, or will you bail because of the anxiety of the unknown?

(Or maybe for you it’s another question: does the fear of uncertainty keep you from ever beginning? )

What happens next is important to pay attention to. As you get close to risk and uncertainty — or even just consider it for a moment — you likely have some sort of fight or flight response. It may look and feel different for every person. Every response has its strengths and limitations. Do you love the adventure and run toward it, risking everything (fight)? Do you cringe at the thought of it and run the other way (flight)? Does it come in fits and starts— one moment running in and the next running away (fight and flight)?

My bet is that your response is somewhat predictable: the way you interact with uncertainty today is similar to the way that you have interacted with it in the past. I’m curious what could happen if, instead of moving straight into your fight or flight gut reaction, you let yourself feel the pull and choose whether or not that’s the response you want to have. If you always choose the uncertain route, your life would be an adventure, but it may also lack continuity and be chaotic. If you are risk averse, you may be missing out on amazing opportunities that are one small risk away.

By listening before you respond, you have the chance to interact with yourself in those feelings.

You can explore your stories of uncertainty and how they resulted in good and bad things. You can explore the stories that your family told about uncertainty and decide if you want those to be what guides you.

Before you act on your impulse, ask where it comes from and what it might be telling you.

Then choose whether or not you want those stories to be the ones that are guiding your life. If you just go with the impulse, you will continue the same patterns of uncertainty that you’ve always lived. This is a chance to make a new story and do uncertainty differently.

As I imagine making an exit and finding a more certain path, I realize that I often feel this way and that I don’t have to act on it. The uncertainty is hard, but it is taking me somewhere. And I believe that it is somewhere that I want and need to go.

How about you?

Dan Cumberland is on a mission to push you into the places meaning, life, & work intersect. He is the author of The Meaning Manifesto. Read more about him here, and connect with him on facebook and twitter.

There Are 6 Comments On This Post.

  1. “I’m curious what could happen if, instead of moving straight into your fight or flight gut reaction, you let yourself feel the pull and choose whether or not that’s the response you want to have…”

    So my question is (and you kind of allude to it a little bit), how do I know whether or not it’s the response that I want to have? (This coming from the person who just wrote about a post on intuition… but then again, maybe I like the tan sweater because it’s comfortable and easy.)

    • Great question, Lacy! A good way to answer it is to look at your pattern of response to know what you do and see how that works out for good and not-so-good. You need to be aware of how your typical response has failed you in order to know when you need a different one.

  2. Joanne

    When I notice that uneasy feeling of uncertainty (related to my job), I have to ask myself, “Is this where I’m supposed to be? Is this what I am supposed to be doing?” If my gut feeling is “yes,” then I have to face the uncertainties instead of trying to run away (because I am one to go into flight mode easily sometimes..). 🙂 The phrase that came to mind for me after I read this was “courage to persevere.”

    • “Courage to Persevere” is a good phrase, and often (for me) the most difficult kind of courage! Thanks Joanne!

  3. Ryan Kuja

    Thank you for these words. You put new language to things I have wrestled with over the course of my entire adult life. There is little I appreciate as much as having fresh language for an old issue. This post is bringing insight into how over and over and over again I have chosen to risk uncertainty, almost to a neurotic degree. And it has on a few of those occasions resulted in chaos. Yet I never saw the link between the mayhem and the choice to risk when drawing back may have been what I needed more. Hmmmm. Lots of new questions and places to explore. Thanks Dan.

    • Hi Ryan! I love that this has already taken you to some insightful places. I hope that knowing your patterns helps you engage your next choice with even more intentionality!

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