April 2nd 2015

Dealing with uncertainty

“Maturity, one discovers, has everything to do with the acceptance of not knowing.”
― Mark Z. Danielewski, House of Leaves

The Easter week-end is here. In my case, this means time spent far away from work, financial markets and meeting rooms. Approximately 650 kilometers West of Zurich. Back to Paris.

While driving back to the French capital with my brother, I was reminded of a discussion I had with a young twenty something Swiss couple a few weeks ago, on the train to Milan. We talked about career paths and the fear of change, about why the Swiss often find it hard to risk it abroad and why having so many choices nowadays is almost a burden. As we blazed through France’s Bourgogne region, looking through the dark and rainy night, the mind wandered.

Changing countries. Changing careers.

Although we live in times in which switching positions, industries or geographic locations is very common, the challenge of “finding one´s way and dealing with uncertainty” remains unchanged. “No one will ever be able to find the answer for you. It has to come from inside.” These were – more or less – the words (certainly more “Swiss-German rough and sharp”) of the career coach I was given back at university and – although I didn’t find it particularly helpful back then – I agree with her to this day.

In the noisy confusion of today’s modern society, where choice has become abundant and information – in the form of a variety of opinions on almost anything – is widely accessible, change often starts with a couple of question marks.

Where do I go from here? This looks like a dead-end. I need to change directions. How do I do this? What if the new path is not as great as I hoped it would be and I regret my decision?

Well, here’s my take on these oftentimes paralyzing questions.

The more I grow, the more I realize that protecting one’s enthusiasm for trying new things and taking chances is absolutely crucial. Stay curious. Keep that inner child alive and don’t let yourself get weary by routine and drudgery. Do maintain a routine in some areas of your life but make sure it stays confined to those.

When trying new things and experimenting, embracing false starts is the name of the game. In most cases, it won’t work out immediately. Like everything else, there is a learning curve. Don’t give in to frustration. Mistakes are experiences. Treat them as such. Learn from them and improve. During my time at Stanford University, many of the students I met there told me that they had created various start-ups and even though most of these businesses had failed to properly take-off, they learned a lot from them. “Fail often and early” was their motto. Some of the investors they had encountered told them that an entrepreneur was only complete once he had gone through at least one failure. Europe has an entirely different mentality in the sense that failure is often seen as irreparable and shameful. It’s not.

When it comes to careers, investing a couple of years in a particular career path to gain specific skills before shifting course or testing new things on the side during the evenings and week-ends are both valid. Some people also take a longer time-out, like a sabbatical, to completely dive into a new experience and build-up a new network without completely cutting off the ties to their current workplace. There are various ways to achieve a transition into something new and entirely different. Some people prefer doing this step-by-step while others like a “clean-cut”. No matter how, it all starts with one´s ability and motivation to explore new areas.

Being able to add new facets to our lives and reinvent ourselves is also becoming more important in times where careers cannot be planned in advance the way they used to be, stripped from the linear approach previous generations had gotten used to. Millennials will change careers more often than any other generation before them. Existing jobs will disappear and entirely new ones will pop up. Being able to adapt to a transforming environment requires a certain degree of openness. Follow the ongoing changes. Understand that if structures are the way they are now, it doesn’t mean they won’t change in a few years’ time. I am not a huge fan of Hockey, but I remember reading an interview from Hockey legend Wayne Gretzky:

“I skate to where the puck is going to be, not where it has been.” 

Somewhere on his way to where the puck was going to be, I am pretty sure Gretzky got acquainted with some very nasty bruises, fractures and other types of injuries (dear hockey fans, feel free to enlighten me here). But falling down is an essential part when wedging a path. Adversity will punch you in the stomach, bring you to your knees and make you gasp. Our world is one where high unemployment rates and major structural transformations are widespread. In many cases, individuals are forced to change. The decisions were made for them. Losing a job, witnessing career plans being torn apart because of industry changes or health issues, family matters and various other events will flip the deck in unexpected ways. But adversity can also give us the opportunity to pull out the best in us, thus enabling that first step into a new direction.

Long ago, French Author Alexandre Dumas wrote in The Count of Monte Cristo:

“…the overflow of my brain would probably, in a state of freedom, have evaporated in a thousand follies; it needs trouble and difficulty and danger to hollow out various mysterious and hidden mines of human intelligence. Pressure is required, you know, to ignite powder: captivity has collected into one single focus all the floating faculties of my mind; they have come into close contact in the narrow space in which they have been wedged. You know that from the collision of clouds electricity is produced and from electricity comes the lightning from whose flash we have light amid our greatest darkness.”

It’s ok to take a beating and feel some pressure. It may actually be beneficial.

What also strikes me are people who remain confident and positive while marching through uncertain times. Whenever getting out there and interacting with others, confidence and a positive attitude can help a great deal in opening new pathways. One conversation. One good impression. Show courage in the face of adversity and respond with your best smile.

“I never saw a wild thing sorry for itself. A small bird will drop frozen dead from a bought without ever having felt sorry for itself.” – D.H. Lawrence

So stay wild. Stay curious.

Before I put an end to this post, I will add one more thought that crossed my mind on the topic of dealing with uncertainty. It’s about instincts and intuition. I couldn’t put it in better words than those chosen by Steven Spielberg during his speech at the Academy of Achievements:

“…the hardest thing to listen to—your instincts, your human personal intuition—always whispers; it never shouts. Very hard to hear. So you have to every day of your lives be ready to hear what whispers in your ear; it very rarely shouts. And if you can listen to the whisper, and if it tickles your heart, and it’s something you think you want to do for the rest of your life, then that is going to be what you do for the rest of your life, and we will benefit from everything you do.”

So follow your intuition.

Picture shot on a very early Sunday morning on top of the Duomo in Milan.

As usual, the gear was a Canon 5D Mark III with a Canon 16-35mm 4.0

This post is also available in French and German