The Fear of the Unknown

At least some degree of tolerance for uncertainty is required to grow and thrive in the world.

1. Get Good at Feeling Bad

A central tenet of my philosophy is that the more we avoid negative emotions, the more those emotions will paradoxically screw us over at some point.

Ignoring the fact that you’re angry only causes that anger to well up and then explode at some inopportune moment.

Ignoring the resentment you harbor for your parents and pretending everything is fine between you only festers over time and puts a strain on your relationship that can last for years, if not your entire life.

And ignoring the anxiety and discomfort you feel in the face of uncertainty only makes your anxiety about uncertainty worse.

There’s some interesting research that links mobile phone usage with increased anxiety towards uncertainty.16 It’s correlational data at this point, so we can’t make any strong causal claims, but the idea behind it makes sense.

The theory goes that when you engage in this type of escapism by burying your face in your phone, you’re reducing your exposure to everyday uncertainty. And when you don’t have experience dealing with everyday uncertainty in your life, each subsequent uncertainty becomes that much more difficult to handle.

It’s like if you were never exposed to any germs of any kind, your immune system would never be able fight off any infections because it never “learned” how to fight off any infections.

Make yourself more resilient towards uncertainty… by sitting with uncertainty.

2. Build Compounding Habits and Routines

Dealing with uncertainty of the unknown is a lot easier when you exert agency over the parts of your life you can control. One way this happens is that building habits and routines in the most important areas of your life can counterbalance the uncertainty we feel by providing some stability.

Again, stability is not the same as certainty. A person, group, or even society might be able to absorb more uncertainty, which ultimately makes them more robust and stable. But being robust and stable is no guarantee of the certainty of your robustness and stability.

I’d say the real benefit is that building healthy habits brings you face-to-face with what you can and cannot control in your life. This, in turn, makes you more comfortable with uncertainty.

For example, virtually all the habit research out there suggests that your willpower is far less important than your environment when creating and maintaining healthy habits.

So you can’t really control when you’re going to crave cake and ice cream, but you can control what you buy at the grocery store. If you skip the junk food and instead keep a stash of healthy snacks in the fridge, you’re far, far less likely to pig out on cake and ice cream in those inevitable moments of weakness.

It’s a subtle shift in thinking that has a huge impact: you have very little control over how you’re going to feel at any given moment, but you have a lot of control over the environment in which those feelings will occur. So focus on creating the best environment for yourself.

Once your thinking shifts to this, you’ll start to say to yourself, “Okay, I can’t control X, but what can I do to make the best possible outcome more likely to happen?”

Over time, you’ll start to accept uncertainty as just another part of life because you’ll begin to see that “not knowing” isn’t a dead end, that you have control over some things even if you don’t over others.

Another example: I can never be certain that I’ll be in peak creative form whenever I sit down to write something.

But I can control whether or not I show up, sit my ass down, and start writing. The muse may or may not strike me on any given day. I can’t control that.

I might only have a 30%-40% chance of producing something worth reading on any given day, but that drops to 0% if I don’t show up at all (I guess we can be certain of that).

So when I have a shit day of writing, I’m not too bothered by the uncertainty of it—of thinking that I might not ever write anything worth reading again—because I know that as long as I continue to show up and do the work, something good will eventually come of it.

And speaking of writing…

3. Get Creative

Being more tolerant of uncertainty is linked with being more creative.17,18 It’s not clear if tolerating uncertainty makes you more creative or if being creative makes you tolerate more uncertainty, but I would guess it’s almost certainly a two-way street.

When you’re creating something new—even if it’s only new to you—you have to face the uncertainty of not knowing how it will turn out, how others will receive it, and whether or not it will fail or succeed at fulfilling your intentions.

So more creative people are probably more comfortable with uncertainty to begin with, but I’d argue it works in reverse too: their exposure to more uncertainty also makes them more creative as well.

I’m facing the unknown every time I sit down to write. That gives me direct experience with uncertainty every day.

Then, once my ass is in the chair and I’m writing, I’m diving deeper into the unknown. I’m saying, “Hey, there’s something here I’ve never seen/felt/experienced. I wonder what that’s about…” and I follow it.

It’s in this nebulous unknown area of the universe within our minds where ideas get mixed and remixed, where connections are found between far-distant concepts, where creation really occurs.

Every creative work ever done has started with asking a question about the unknown and then trying to come up with an answer.