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A Guide to Living in Not Knowing

15 Lessons to Survive and Thrive during Uncertainty & Growth Stages

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How to Live in Not Knowing

A wonderful mentor and I have been talking a lot about “living in not knowing” given the year 2020 has shaped up to be. These days, what do we know for sure? Can we predict what we are going to be presented with next? We start to question, what have we ever known for sure? My mentor knows that I’ve lived in a liminal state of “not knowing” at different periods in my life, during which I was navigating where I wanted to go with my career and how I wanted to shape my life. While such times have been hard, I’ve gotten through them and have relished many moments and experiences during such challenging growth stages. My mentor stated that I must have learnings to share, that I might be helpful to others being called to live now in so much not knowing. So, I’m being open and sharing with you what has helped me navigate uncertain and sometimes rocky times. 

As I reflect back, there are 4 core stages and 15 insights or actions that have helped me navigate times of not knowing:

Stop & Orient:

  1. Acknowledge and inquire. First things first. A good place to start is to acknowledge that you are in a state of unknowing, as we all are, and to normalize it. You are not alone. Far from it. A simple thing to do is to look at this state of being and how you are feeling and inquire about it. What’s here for you?
  2. Get grounded. It may sound counter-intuitive, but I found it really helpful to step away from the cloud of not knowing and start with documenting a long-term vision of what I wanted for my life, framing where I wanted to be in 10-15 years and the kind of life I wanted to create for myself and my husband over time. The vision grounded me and allowed me to get oriented. My further out goals were much more clear to me than what I should be doing in the short-term. When doing this work, one doesn’t have to know the specifics, but having a general sense of where you want to go can help. For this type of work, I’ve been inspired by David Allen’s Horizons of Focus model, and even created a tool of my own called, “The Decade by Decade Horizon Map,” which you can learn more about here. I also appreciate the advice from Dr. Ned Hallowell to identify just three short, medium, and long-term goals to both focus your actions and help you achieve goals across multiple horizons.

Resource:

  1. Build resilience. During this time, it’s important to resource yourself and build resilience. I had the pleasure of taking a class with Dr. Rick Hanson on “The Science and Practice of Resilience,” and his teaching helped me tremendously. I also love his “Being Well” podcast and highly recommend the first couple of seasons that can inform managing through this stage and building resilience. I found a lot of useful insights and exercises through Dr. Hanson’s wisdom. 
  2. Pause. If you can, even if for short periods, take a pause if you feel you need it. I fought this for a long time or waited due to financial and life requirements. But at some point, I had to take a break. I was responsible about it (e.g., making sure I had savings, making sure I had a plan), and I advise anyone to be. But for me, taking a break was invaluable. (If you want to learn about my thoughts on “How to Sabbatical,” you can read more here.) And then, if you are taking a break, even for just a long weekend, be present! I can’t state the importance of this enough. Fretting about things during a break is not going to manifest the answer. Believe me, I tried. All fretting did was diminish moments of my pause instead of me really experiencing it fully and soaking it in. I did that much of the time, but I could have done it even more… all of the time.
  3. Seek wisdom and guidance. During growth stages, I look to others for wisdom. And I love to learn, so I read a lot and listen to a lot of podcasts, seeking inspiration to guide me. Books of particular note are: “When the Heart Waits,” by Sue Monk Kidd, “Transitions” by William Bridges, and “Comfortable with Uncertainty,” by Pema Chödrön. Podcasts of note are: Oprah’s Super Soul Conversations, The Pivot Podcast with Jenny Blake, and Being Well with Dr. Rick Hanson, amongst many others with generally interesting topics that fed my curiosity and soul. Finally, I have found it invaluable at key stages to work with an executive and career coach. Having a guide who is dedicated to being your champion and a sounding board during transitions may seem like an indulgence, but it’s quite helpful and valuable, with my own experiences leading me to this type of work myself.
  4. Build your support system. I can’t say how important having a wonderful group of friends and family and a supportive husband has been to me during periods of unknowing. So, I’d encourage you to surround yourself with a community of people who will support you and have your back so you can confidently progress forward. It’s also important to consider finding a group going through a similar experience, so you can know you’re not alone and will be supported. In a training on Designing & Leading Change at The Grove Consultants International, the instructors shared a cultural anthropology concept of “communitas” (a community experiencing a transition at the same time) and how helpful this type of group can be while going through a change, like a rite of passage. I found having the right community support can be invaluable. I also learned that I really appreciate being with people who are creative and innovative, leading to generative conversations that are energizing and fun. Pay attention to the types of conversations that fuel you, and seek out and move towards those individuals with whom conversations are generative for you and enjoyable.  
  5. Lower your anxiety. It’s not unusual for anxiety to rear its head during times of uncertainty and when you feel off balance. I found it helpful to have at hand a list of “anxiety medicine,” if you will, that I could take when my anxiety reared its head. For example, acknowledge that I’m feeling anxious and then remind myself that I’m okay right now, as Dr. Rick Hanson advises. It’s a quick, simple soothing phrase to say to oneself. I actually developed five mantras that I could refer to in a moment to immediately right myself. Other actions I took and continue to rely on: shift my energy by getting out into nature and comforting myself with a walk in the park; remember that anxiety is the flip side of excitement, so I ask myself if I can reframe my anxiety to be about excitement; and simply asking at times, “What’s the worst that can happen?,” and realizing that I can get through that, too. 
  6. Be kind and compassionate to yourself. I’ll admit that I’m still working on this one, but it’s important. A lot of people have written and spoken about the power of self-compassion. We often are much harder on ourselves than we are on others. Ask, “Would I say this to my best friend?” Likely no. Practice being kind to yourself and showing yourself some compassion knowing that times of not knowing are challenging.

Attune & Analyze:

  1. Do the work. I think there are two sides to being in not knowing. On the one hand, I don’t think you can be passive. You have to be actively engaged in finding your way to some sense of clarity in the moment. So, it’s important to do the work to know yourself. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi states in his book “Flow,” “These seemingly easy questions are almost impossible to answer for someone who has lost touch with his own experience. If a (person) has not bothered to find out what he wants, if his attention is so wrapped up in external goals that he fails to notice his own feelings, then he cannot plan action meaningfully.” So, get attuned to yourself. Contemplate. Reflect. Stay in inquiry. 
  2. Surrender. The flip side of doing the work is surrender. Sometimes all the work in the world is futile. I was listening to a recent Pivot podcast episode with Jenny Blake, and she helped unblock me with the concept of Surrender and asking the universe to show me the way. I’ve been struggling with a project and have not had a clear vision that resonates, despite a lot of effort in trying to define it. Then in one moment, I was given permission to surrender and let the universe show me the way. My heart lightened. The burden to figure it out had been lifted. My “working at” it wasn’t bringing me to knowing. It is time for me to surrender, to put that particular question and project down, to wait for insight to show up, to wait for the new path to show itself while I’m progressing other activities forward. Once the path becomes clear, then I can pick the work back up. Sometimes periods of not knowing require us to pause and slow down. The answers don’t always come on what we think is supposed to be the time table. 
  3. Follow your curiosity and attention. Two questions have helped me during times of not knowing and have helped friends also get unstuck when they feel like they have to have THE answer. Instead ask, “What am I curious about right now?” and “What has my attention right now?” Start there. Indulge in what’s present for you at this moment. Another thing you can do as part of this inquiry is to look back in your history and see if you can find any threads that connect to your current curiosities and what is holding your attention. Is there more insight there when you do so?

Act, Learn, & Grow:

  1. Take the next step. A wise coach I worked with, Meredith Mehlberg, always advised me, “Just take the next step. What action is next?” It’s great advice to get you moving without having to have your path all figured out. You take the next step, assess, and figure out the next step from there. Also consider asking, “Okay, from here, what do I want to try next?” Create different experiments and determine what you want to prototype in small ways to help you find your way to what’s next. As Adam Grant, the well-known organizational psychologist, wrote: “Uncertainty is hope disguised as dread. The best antidote to anxiety isn’t calm. It isn’t distraction. It’s action.” So take the next step.
  2. Reframe “failure.” During this time, as with most of life, we have to accept that there will be setbacks. But I, like many others, don’t like the word failure. My favorite quote on this is from Oprah who said, “There is no such thing as failure; failure is just life trying to move us in another direction.” So as you try things during a time of unknowing and they don’t go as planned, don’t be critical of yourself. Take it as learning and life pushing you in the right direction. Along the same lines, I also love the idea of this inquiry from Adam Markel on the Being Well podcast, “What is the meaning and wisdom in this situation?”, and this perspective, “I failed. Good! It means I can go find something better and more interesting!” 
  3. Look for alignment. There will be moments when a vision, a plan, the path starts to show itself. Pay attention to the signals where life moments start to line up and where they don’t. Where is there momentum? Where do you feel like you are continuing to walk into walls? 
  4. Be motivated by growth & learning. Finally, a quote from Marie Forleo really stuck with me and galvanized me to continue to live in not knowing. She shared how living being on the edge of growth is the best place to be. I know that growth and learning is one of my top values. So why was I fighting being in a deep stage of growth? Then she said, “Choose growth and learning over comfort and certainty.” Yes! Did I want comfort and certainty? Yes, but did I want that in sacrifice of growth and learning? No! If you are comfortable and certain, you aren’t necessarily on the growth curve. My mentor has shared the insight with me, “Are you certain of what’s next? No. Good! That means there are all kinds of possibilities!” What a beautiful reframe. Knowing means certainty, means one path. Not knowing means uncertainty and a world of possibility. I’m all for that.

Living in not knowing isn’t easy and can be uncomfortable. I hope my sharing of these insights and tools that have provided me with guidance and relief can help you in finding some peace, as well as enrichment and joy, as we all wade through this time of uncertainty. In the end, while periods of not knowing have been some of the toughest, they’ve also been some of the most enriching of my life. I wish the same for you.

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Kathy Oneto is an executive coach, career strategist, and founder of Sustainable Ambition. Sustainable Ambition is about crafting a fulfilling career to support your life from decade to decade. The end game—more fulfillment and ease in your professional and personal life, while still being ambitious. Get your FREE Sustainable Ambition Self-Assessment here.

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