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Never Mistake Stability for Certainty

stacked stones
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One of the most common thinking traps that we humans fall into is mistaking stability for certainty.

I’ll bet you’re used to things being a particular way. The amount of traffic on your commute. What you do on the weekends. The type of tasks you do at work. How your morning coffee tastes.

What’s it like when something changes? You run into heavy traffic on the way home. Your favourite restaurant is closed for private function on the night you wanted to go. Your boss asks you to cover a task while they’re away for the week. You run out of coffee right before grocery day.

You’ll probably barely blink at small, temporary changes. You might be a little annoyed, but you find a workaround, or just suck it up, knowing things will “get back to normal”.

Now imagine that a whole new subdivision has opened up nearby, and your work commute is now 15 minutes longer. Your favourite restauranteur retires and shuts up shop. You’re shifted to a new role in a new team. The coffee producer discontinues your favourite roast.

“That’s not fair!”

“Why can’t things just go back to the way they were?!”

All of a sudden you discover that you’ve fallen into the trap of mistaking stability for certainty.

Stability ≠ certainty

It’s completely normal to get used to things when they stay the same. Our brain loves a good shortcut, so once it thinks that it’s noticed a pattern, it pushes the details to the back of your mind. You don’t even think about the situation again, and that creates an illusion of certainty.

And then something changes. That’s when your brain kicks in with the thought “Wait, that’s now how things are supposed to be!”

Just because things haven’t changed recently (or rather, because they usually change so slowly that you don’t notice), that doesn’t mean that they can’t and won’t change, sometimes in the blink of an eye.

Surely, if there’s one thing we’ve learned from the last few years it’s that things can change dramatically with very little notice. The way we do things is not “how things should be”. It’s just the way they currently are.

Pandemics and processes

In a former life, I managed process improvement projects for large company. I used to joke that if I heard people say, “That’s just how we do things”, then I would take that as a nomination for a process improvement project.

Because if we’re not regularly spending time thinking about what’s changing around us and within us, and what possibilities those changes are creating, then we’re missing many glorious opportunities to improve what we do, say, think, and feel. Sometimes, it takes a disaster, emergency, or accident to shake us out of our complacency.

So when it started to become obvious in March 2020 that coronavirus was going to be coming to our shores, I started encouraging my clients to think about things differently, using the phrase “Never waste a good crisis”. I was reminding them that even when things seem to be in disarray, and our illusion of certainty is taken away, we have a golden opportunity to revisit, rethink, and re-create.

Our only certainty is uncertainty

According to Benjamin Franklin, the only certainty in life are death and taxes. And yet, there is so much uncertainty for each of us around those things! We don’t know when or how we’ll die. And I don’t know about you, but I never know how much tax I should be paying (thankfully, I have a great accountant to sort that for me!). And I won’t know how much I’ll end up paying over the course of my life, until the last payment is made (which will no doubt be after my demise – hopefully many years from now!)

"Change is the only constant"

Heraclitus

So, in respectful disagreement to Mr Franklin’s claim, I propose that the only certainty in life is uncertainty.

We think we know what tomorrow will bring. We believe that how we’re living will keep us healthy. We hope we’ve chosen the right career path, or house, or spouse. But we don’t know until we see where the chips fall.

So what can we do about uncertainty?

If uncertainty is the name of the game, then, in order to thrive, we need to be able to stay standing when things are changing around us, and to pick ourselves back up when the floor drops out from underneath us.

How can we do that? By being our own best friend, coach, mentor, cheerleader, strategist, and change agent.

We will also benefit from building solid relationships with other good people who are doing the same for themselves. Having a community who can support us when we’re facing uncertainty can give us confidence, inspiration, and motivation to keep going.

And the other thing we can do is remind ourselves of the best and wisest piece of advice I have ever encountered: “This too shall pass”. Nothing in life is permanent, and there is a huge amount of freedom to be found in accepting life’s twists and turns, holding lightly to everything we see, think and feel.

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