Being okay with change and uncertainty

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The old adage that change is a constant is a truism. There are however, at different times in human history, shifts in gears in the rate of change. Technological innovation is clearly a major driver of this shift in rate of change. Today, we face another shift with the advent of artificial intelligence (AI) driven applications. What will this mean for human society? What will it mean for employment? Heightened change and the uncertainty it brings, is often accompanied by a sense of heightened collective anxiety. The uncertainty we are collectively experiencing seems to be growing and is likely to continue to be amplified given the rapid advancement of this new technology.

Humans as a rule, don’t enjoy sitting inside the discomfort of uncertainty. But is uncertainty all bad? In this article, we’ll look at how to frame uncertainty in a way that can open us up to the opportunities it provides, rather than simply amplifying the risks.

Working as a trader and investment manager for over 20 years has shifted my perspective regarding uncertainty. Trading and investing involves making bets in the present with an expected payoff in the future. How to price and profit from future uncertainty is central to the game. Many novice traders and investors struggle with this as they get stuck in an idea of a future that ultimately doesn’t come to pass. They become stubborn and lose flexibility in the face of changing circumstances.

This is a common reaction to uncertainty. When we feel the stress and anxiety associated with change and uncertainty, our natural tendency is to fortress ourselves into the familiar. We look for comfort – in food, in family, in distractions, or we project our fears as a collective onto others or groups that we perceive as “outside” of us. As collective anxiety grows, populist politics also grows with it. We become inflexible and hold onto beliefs that give us comfort, instead of opening our minds to ideas that might be useful.

There are certainly risks to be managed when rapid change is upon us. Defining risks that we can influence and strategies to mitigate them is prudent. Building savings buffers and re-skilling for example, might be simple and effective ways to prepare for downside risks to the coming wave of AI technology. At the same time, many imagined risks in life are outside of our control or never come to pass, so it’s important to be open to the upsides of uncertainty.

In my experience, much of the wonder that is life, springs from uncertainty. With this in mind, let’s do an exercise.

Allow yourself a few minutes to meditate on the future. Not by projecting your ideas about how it might look, but by simply acknowledging that you don’t know. Hold this thought for a moment and allow yourself to feel the edge of discomfort that is the unknowable future. Not by projecting disaster, but by simply acknowledging that you don’t know what the future holds. When you pass through the discomfort, you might notice something quite surprising. That beyond the fear of uncertainty, are infinite possibilities. The feeling of discomfort around uncertainty transforms into curiosity and anticipation.

It takes a disciplined mind to operate effectively inside uncertainty. But this can be trained. With a willingness to let go of preconceptions, and to be open and flexible, anxiety experienced around future uncertainty can be transformed into a productive and life affirming way of being.

Photo by Nataliya Vaitkevich: