Living with Uncertainty

The VUCA (Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous) environment that we find ourselves in is unsettling, isn’t it? I don’t know about you, but some nights I find myself waking in the early hours with a vague sense of unease, my shoulders slightly hunched against threat.

It isn’t just the pandemic, it is all the existential threats we are facing. The complexity of our highly interconnected world makes it hard to predict what will happen next. And when we can’t easily predict what will happen next, our mind tends to predict threat. Which is, of course, not unreasonable when we read the news.

So what is to be done?

Practice Self Compassion

Be very, very kind to yourself. This is a tough time. It can be hard to concentrate. Hard to focus on anything but the tasks that have an immediate deadline. It is hard to do complex cognitive tasks. If you are like me, it is also hard not to have self-critical thoughts –“I am such a wimp, compared to so many people in the world I am so safe and privileged. Why can’t I just get shit done?”. This isn’t particularly helpful but it is what many of us do in tough moments.

These hard moments are actually times when it is important to treat yourself gently. See if you can talk to yourself with kindness and firmness. Don’t let yourself off the hook but don’t berate yourself either. ‘You do need to sit down and make a start on that report. I know it feels tough but just set a timer for 20 minutes and make a start’.

When harsh and self-critical thoughts come up, respond to them compassionately – they are just trying to help. 

Kristin Neff’s website has many resources to help build self-compassion. I find her self-compassion journal exercise particularly helpful.  And if you can’t even manage to do that, be kind to yourself about your inability to practice self-compassion.

Be compassionate and firm with others

Most of us are a bit under-resourced at the moment, which can make us snappy and irritable and sometimes badly behaved. It is a good idea to be compassionate to each other about these failings rather than harsh and judgmental whilst also gently and firmly setting boundaries. ‘I don’t like the way my boss just spoke to me in front of a client. It hurts. And, I suspect that, just like me, they are stressed. However, it is important that we treat each other respectfully. What would a wise person do right now? Perhaps ask ‘Are you okay? Is something bothering you’ 

Prepare for the worst case scenario – but don’t over-do it 

In volatile environments it is good to build some slack into the system, so you have some resources to draw on if things suddenly get much worse.

Do be careful not to over-do this. Preparing for the worst can be costly and humans tend to be very bad at predicting the future. Which means that it is highly likely that you will prepare for the wrong worst case.

“I have spent most of my life worrying about things that have never happened.”

Mark Twain

The answer to this conundrum is to do things that are low cost and wise even if the worst case doesn’t happen e.g. put some money on one side for a rainy day fund; have some food in the pantry for if you get sick and need to self-isolate; learn how to grow vegetables; build good relationships with your neighbours; get strong and fit.

Think Differently

In VUCA environments you need to think differently. You need to use different strategies to both make sense of the world and choose what actions to take.

Until recently, many of the challenges you have come up against have probably been complicated rather than complex.

Complicated problems have solutions that can be found. You just need to think carefully and logically and draw on the right expertise. For example, when your car breaks down, you have a complicated problem. You work out how to get the car to the mechanic (the expert at fixing cars) and then the mechanic will, hopefully, fix it for you.

If, like me, you have spent a lot of time building expertise in solving complicated problems, it is easy to assume that you can use that expertise to solve the problems you are now facing. But this assumes that the problem is complicated rather than complex. And the situation we now find ourselves in, is complex.

In a complex system, things evolve all the time in unpredictable ways. A good example of how a complex system evolves is to watch a susurration of starlings.

You can’t predict where the starlings will go next. Sometimes they follow the path you were expecting and then, quite suddenly, there is a shift in direction. In a complex system you can’t predict how the system will change and what will emerge. This uncertainty is hard for humans. Particularly when the uncertainty is about things that are genuinely threatening:

Will I or someone I care about become ill? If they do become ill, will good health care be available for them?

Will I lose my job?

Will my business fold?

Is it safe to hug my parents/brother/sister/best friend?

What will bush fire season be like this year? Will the air be smokey for weeks?

So how do we manage this unpredictable and complex world?

Firstly, take a deep breath and go back to the points I started with – 

Be very, very kind to yourself and the people around you

Be gently firm with yourself and the people around you

Do what you can to plan for the worst case scenario without going overboard

Then, use some strategies that are designed for making sense of complexity:

Create a map or a rich picture of the system/problem

Think systemically 

Ask questions in ways that help people think together and come up with new thinking for example:

What has surprised you? And what can we learn from that?

Where did things not turn out as we expected and what did you learn from that?

Look for patterns and exceptions – but be careful not to impose patterns where none exist. Sometimes things are just random.

Look for what is not being talked about or perspective that haven’t been considered.

Design and run safe-to fail experiments

VUCA isn’t easy for humans. Most of us have minds that prefer safety and predictability. Paradoxically, recognising that you are in a VUCA environment and then thinking in different ways about the challenges you are facing, can help you to navigate the ever-changing situation more successfully.

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