The Wisdom of Uncertainty

We don’t take enough risk.

One piece of consistent guidance from those with successful lives and careers is to be willing to embrace new opportunities. This often requires taking on some risk. While some define risk as “exposure to the chance of injury or loss; a hazard or dangerous chance”, others consider risk to be “an uncertain event or condition that, if it occurs, has a positive or negative effect on a project’s objectives”.  In the latter definition, there is the possibility of a positive outcome.

When we don’t embrace risk and uncertainty, we can be reluctant to ask for things that benefit us (e.g. promotions, raises, good project work).  Because we’re afraid of the answer, we avoid new opportunities unless we have complete confidence we can succeed in them, and we may even fail to apply for jobs unless we’re certain we have 100% of the stated requirements.

I see it in many clients (women far more than men) and have to admit that I, too, can be pretty risk averse.  Uncertainty is just not fun.

Randall P. White, PhD.  reminds us that though uncertainty is uncomfortable for everyone, it can also be a catalyst.  In his research he has also detected a pattern:

“Successful executives share an important skill:  the ability to effectively engage uncertainty by heading toward it.”

Dr. White also believes that our tolerance for uncertainty can be improved.[1]

My approach to dealing with risk and uncertainty is simple:  Take a deep breath, then step forward and try it.

I realize that we don’t need to try everything, especially those things that could harm us or put us in untenable positions.  I, for instance, never plan to jump out of a perfectly good airplane, no matter how much my confidence might increase having done it.  But there are a few scanning questions we can ask ourselves before taking that step forward:

  1. Is my fear of this based on reality or assumptions? In other words, do I have any evidence that bad things will happen if I step into this uncertainty or am I just scared?
  2. Will this step forward, if successful, take me closer to my goals and ambitions?
  3. Do I have a solid foundation on which to lean in to this new experience? For example, does it play to my strengths, do I have a support network, do I have a reasonable (although not guaranteed) exit strategy?
  4. What’s the worst that could happen?  And if it does, how would I realistically handle the outcome?

There are many benefits to taking intentional steps into uncertain situations:

  1. We learn from them.
  2. We develop new skills.
  3. Our confidence increases.
  4. We get closer to our goals.
  5. We are role models for others.

In the coming weeks, what is one thing you can do that will stretch you, make you a bit uncomfortable and flex that uncertainty tolerance muscle?  It is with repeated trials and successes (or failures and learning) that we gain skill and confidence.


[1] “Positive Psychology in Coaching”  by Sandra L. Foster, Ph.D. and Jeffrey E. Auerbach, Ph.D.

Photo: Lukiyanova Natalia frenta/ Shutterstock

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Susan Hodge

Susan Hodge

Susan Hodge created Women Leading Together in order to provide one-on-one executive coaching, seminars, workshops, and coaching circles to help career women move forward to create fulfilling professional lives. Visit our website for upcoming programs, articles, and resources to advance your career.


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