Embracing Uncertainty: The Hallmark of Success and Peak Performance

Recently, I met with a very accomplished tennis player, who also happens to be in the world of finance. In our meeting he described how his body would go physiologically haywire right before the announcement of a companies’ earnings—nausea, constricted throat, diarrhea, even cold sweats at night. This physiological reaction was similar, he said, to an upcoming tennis match.

Interestingly, once the earnings report was delivered—positive or negative—he was relieved. He felt the same way in a tennis match—once he was playing his nervous system settled down. Clearly, the anticipation of either event was wreaking havoc on his system. This is a clear case of anticipatory anxiety—a preoccupation with an upcoming event that tends to create feelings of panic, often accompanied by a fight or flight reaction that leads to the symptoms I’m describing here.

Of course, there are levels of the game in terms of people’s reaction to upcoming events. Feeling “aroused”, experiencing some worry or tension prior to a big event is common and natural. Many situations can create anticipatory anxiety—an important presentation or client meeting, an athletic event, a social event, or going into surgery. There are endless situations that people must deal with on a daily basis that can create anxiety. How we manage our reactions to these situations matters a lot.

Daniel Siegel, a prominent neuropsychologist and author of over a dozen books, describes the profile of the healthiest individuals possessing a sort of equanimity in pressure moments, which includes their ability to embrace uncertainty. The reality is that we usually don’t know what is going to happen in the future. We can imagine what might happen, prepare for it, create real intention to manifest it, but ultimately we don’t know how things will unfold. This uncertainty can create a chronic resistance to future possibilities and we can often think in catastrophic ways—imagining the worst possible scenarios. Or, alternatively, we can imagine the best possible outcome but then be disappointed. Certainly, how much importance we place on a particular event matters. The meaning that an event has for you will make a big difference. And, I know, that when it is tied to your survival and identity, the tension can get pretty intense.

The key is to learn to recognize that not knowing, while certainly challenging, makes life exciting and generates a level of motivation, will, discipline that would otherwise be unattainable. Getting clearer on what you control and what you don’t obviously is critical. Knowing what you cannot control and accepting the consequence—that is, embracing whatever shows up takes courage.

Of course, this leads us back to the process of our efforts, putting all of our energy into whatever we are doing, believing in ourselves and what we do, to the extent we are able, and letting the chips fall where they may. Easier said than done? Always. But, in the end, our mindset matters. And, this, thankfully we have quite a bit of control over.

Here are just a few of my favorite strategies to strengthen your relationship with the unknown:

1. Avoid the extremes as much as possible. Usually things aren’t as amazing or as devastating as your mind would have you believe. Find some perspective and remember that you have likely been disappointed or experienced setbacks in the past and survived.

2. Catch yourself making up stories about what other people might be thinking. Often, worry about the future and the uncertainty it brings can be connected to the opinions of others. Usually, people aren’t thinking about us as much as we like to think. Why? They’re too busy worrying about themselves!

3. Practice deep breathing and have the breath become an integral part of your day. Use it often (Breathe deeply in through your nose and out through your mouth to a count of 4 seconds in, 1 second hold, and 6 seconds exhale). This breath can reduce tension and stress immediately when practiced.

4. Get more comfortable feeling uncomfortable. Often it is not only the actual outcome we worry about but also the feeling that comes with it—disappointment, feelings of failure, and more anxiety about our financial situation or status. Don’t sell yourself short. You can bounce back and you can handle the stress, especially if you learn to accept it as a natural part of life and the cost of pursuing things that matter to you.