Learning from Uncertainty

“Uncertainty creates the freedom to discover meaning.” Ellen Langer

It recently came to my attention that I have an annoying habit of wanting validation that the work I’m sending out into the world in the form of emails, blog posts, new ideas, etc. meets the standard that I expect for myself. I want certainty of their success. (Of course, that’s a pretty impossible task, but go with me here for a moment.

So, I would run things by my partner. Not every little email, but if I composed an email to a major potential client, I’d send it his way. Or if considering a new networking event to attend, I’d say “hey, what do you think?” When he told me that I was maxing out his limited bandwidth, I stopped to reflect on why exactly I was constantly looking for confirmation.

First, I went to the obvious - is this a gender thing of me needing “a man’s” approval? But, we don’t play by typical gender roles in our business or married lives (we’re a husband - wife business team) so I didn’t give that much credence. Then I thought, maybe it’s because I’m the youngest child and I’m used to other people always having an opinion about what I’m doing. Although there may be a little something to that, I knew I needed to dig deeper.

Now, imagine that overachieving, perfectionist type that did well in school - yep that’s me. I double or triple checked my work because I don’t like getting things wrong. It’s been ingrained in me by parents, teachers, and many, many years of positive reinforcement. It feels good to know I’m getting it right. I didn’t see a downside to it. Except that I’m not in school anymore. There’s no right answer most of the time. And trying to get it “right” slows things down considerably.

Without realizing it over the years, I’ve spread my habit of double checking my work onto my partner.  When the reality is, neither one of us needs to do it most of the time. And as we get busier and busier, we just don’t have the time. Now that I’m aware of it, I pay attention to which situations need what level of attention. It's a work in progress.

A great tool I use to help evaluate situations is a question that an art teacher used to ask me. When first out of college, I took an art class called “art for the non-artist.” As you might imagine from my previous description of myself, I perform well in situations where there’s a clear right/wrong answer so the art class proved to be quite challenging. I frequently would turn to the teacher to say “Is this right?” (are you seeing my pattern here?) She would reply, “You’re the artist, you decide.” 

Her response was always so unsettling, yet empowering. Ellen Langer captures that contrast so well in this quote from her book the Power of Learning. Now many years later, I frequently challenge myself with “you’re the artist, you decide.” It often prevents me from checking in with anyone else before taking action.

I am the creator. I decide when it’s ready. It might not be right. It might not be perfect. It might even be a failure. But the choices I make in the process will certainly teach me and help me grow.

Where is uncertainty preventing you from taking action? What would happen if you gave yourself permission to "be the artist?"