When Life Throws You Curve Balls: How to Manage Uncertainty

Tossing a coin

Do you face uncertainty in your life? How do you manage them?

Uncertainty in Life

Last Friday, I was out having high tea with a friend. During our conversation, we talked about his upcoming job, which is slated to start at the end of this month (Aug). He shared with me some uncertainty surrounding the job.


It seemed that him and his future employers have yet to agree on the one important job term — his pay. While they had proposed a starting pay, my friend felt that it was too low and had requested for a higher figure. This amount is highly important to my friend, to the extent where he will reject the job if they cannot accede to his request. His employers said that they would revert to him in time.

While my friend waits for their reply, he feels like he’s in a state of limbo, because he can’t make any concrete plans about his future until his potential employers revert on their decision. On one hand, it seems like they will probably agree to his request, since it is a reasonable amount. On the other hand, it’s always possible that they would say no because they have the bargaining power.

Remarking on his uneasiness with the uncertainty of the situation, my friend turned to look at me. He asked, “Hey Celes, what do you do when you are facing uncertainty? How would you manage uncertainty?”

How to Manage Uncertainty

I suppose many of us have faced uncertainty at one point or another in our lives. My friend’s situation is just one of the many examples in which uncertainty can manifest itself.

There have been various times in my past when I had to deal with uncertainty. For example:

  1. After I graduated from junior college, I had to select my university course, and I only had a short period to make the decision. It was a relatively big decision which would affect my career path, so it was crucial that I make the right selection. However, since I had little knowledge of the courses and I had little real life experience at that point, I felt very uncertain about the course I should take. It felt unnerving to have to make such a huge decision (at that point in time) in a short period of time.
  2. When I was still working in P&G, there was a point when I wanted to change job assignments to gain exposure to different business units. The bureaucracy of a large organization meant that I had to wait for months before it would happen. There was great uncertainty during this time as it was unclear when the move would happen.
  3. When I quit my job to start my personal development business, I probably faced the most uncertainty then than I ever had in my life. Not only was there uncertainty surrounding the time it would take for my business to take off, there was also uncertainty about my income (I had no income since I was starting a new business). There was also the potential concern that my business might never take off at the end of the day.

In each instance, I learned to manage the uncertainty, rather than let the uncertainty manage me. At the end of the day, I pushed through the obstacles and turned the situation to my advantage, eventually achieving my desired outcome.

If you are currently facing uncertainty in your life, don’t fret. Uncertainty is something that can be managed by taking the right approach. Here are my three best methods to manage uncertainty. 

1. Focus on the things you can control (and don’t worry about the rest)

The first method is to focus on the things you can control while ignoring the things that you can’t.

In every situation you are in, there are always factors that you can control and factors that you can’t control. What are the factors that you can control? Focus on them. What are the factors that you can’t control, but which you can influence through their contributing factors? Focus on them too.

Example: When I started Personal Excellence

Take for example, when I started Personal Excellence, my personal development business. The beginning phase of any startup is always cloaked with uncertainty, and this was no different. Questions which surfaced in my mind then included: “What if the business did not take off after six months?”, “What if I had zero income even after a year?”, and “What if the business never took off?”

This feeling was unsettling initially. However, I knew that it was pointless to feel frantic; it would do little to help the situation and would only compound my concerns.


So, I saw down and addressed my concerns, one at a time. The bulk of my concerns was rooted in cash flow and uncertainty of my business’ success. Hence, I asked myself: “How can I ensure the business will definitely succeed?” and “What should I do if the business did not bring in income after X months?”

Doing this was extremely helpful, because I stopped worrying about the factors which I couldn’t control and focused on the ones which I could control. By asking myself how I could ensure my business’ success, it diverted my attention to things which I could affect, such as how hard I worked, the robustness of my business strategy, the strength of my business plan, and how effective I was with my time, rather than the things which I could not fully control, such as whether the media would pick up my press release, whether my articles would hit the front page of social marketing sites (which were Digg, Stumble Upon, Reddit, and Delicious at that time), and whether people would want to read my material or not.

PE soon gained prominence faster than I anticipated too), income started rolling in, and the rest was history. This happened because I had channeled my energy into factors which I could control, rather than worry about things which I could not influence. By doing so, I was able to create the outcome of my dreams.

Articles relating to my early years with PE:

Idea: To Shift from External to Internal Locus of Control

The idea behind this approach is to shift from an external locus of control to an internal locus of control.

An external locus of control refers to a state where you perceive the external world to have more control than you. For example, if you feel that the economy, the government, and other people have a higher influence than you over your happiness in life, you have an external locus of control.

An internal locus of control refers to a state where you perceive yourself to have more control than the external world. For example, if you feel that you have a bigger role to play than your environment in your happiness, achievements, and success, you have an internal locus of control.

People with an internal locus of control tend to be happier, more empowered, and more solution-oriented than people with an external locus of control. When it comes to uncertainty, you should adopt an internal locus of control. Bring certainty to your situation by focusing on the things you can control and working on those things. As for the other things you can’t control, let them go because worrying about them isn’t going to help you achieve anything.

2. Live your life as you would, independent of the uncertainty

The second method is to live your life as you would normally, independent of the uncertainty.

Ask yourself: “What would I do if this situation/problem did not exist in my life?” Then, do that.

Example: Apprehension surrounding unconfirmed job

My friend’s unconfirmed job situation reminded me of this client whom I coached a year ago.

My client was a very successful investor with his own investment company. Apart from managing his company, he was in a part-time stint with a global technology firm, Firm X, which had the potential to be converted into a permanent job after six months. The job, if offered to him, would be a high profile role with a high compensation package. It would be a once-in-a-life-time opportunity which he would jump at.

As my client neared the end of the stint, he felt apprehensive as the founders of Firm X did not indicate any interest of hiring him for the long term. Despite his efforts to get face time with the founders, the meeting kept getting postponed due to their busy schedules.


Herein laid the dilemma: What should my client do?

  1. Should he keep following up until he receives an answer on the job offer? The risk was that he might come across too pushy, which might jeopardize his chances of selection.
  2. Should he just wait around for the founders to revert on the decision? However, what if they never did? Would that be the end of his relationship with Firm X?

The reason why the uncertainty had bothered my client so much was because he really wanted the job, to the point where he had put his personal plans on hold, in anticipation that he would get the job. Hence, when the job offer became a hazy notion, it threw his life off balance.

I recommended my client to continue living his life as he would, independent of Firm X’s offering or non-offering of the role. I asked him, “What would you do if this job opportunity with Firm X had never presented itself?”

He answered, “I would continue to build the portfolio of my investment company. I would also build my personal brand by giving investment training and business consultations.”

“Go ahead and do that then!” I responded. “Continue to follow up with the founders of Firm X with regards to the job offer; however, don’t put your life on hold for it since there is no confirmation that you would get that job.”

“Wow, thanks a lot Celes,” my client said. “You are right that I had felt so anxious about the pending job offer because I had put so much of my life on hold in anticipation of the opportunity. I didn’t realize that I was putting my personal goals on hold. I will now work on my goals as per usual and not worry too much about the job offer, since it is, after all, unconfirmed.”

As my client worked on his personal goals, the uncertainty with the job offer stopped bothering him. While he still did not receive any updates with regards to the pending job offer, he was at peace with the situation. After a couple of weeks, as fate would have it, he was offered a full-time job with Firm X.

3. Bring certainty to the important things (and let the other things go)

In every situation, there are always things that are important to you and other things that are less important. The third method is to bring certainty to the important things and let the other less important things go. Since the latter items are not so important, it wouldn’t really matter what comes out of them.

Example: Migrating to an unknown country

Let’s say you have just migrated to a new country. You are unemployed. You have no friends in the country. You have no income since you are unemployed. You have no fixed accommodation and you are merely living at a hostel at the moment. Your savings can only last you for another week. Your life is in a state of flux and everything is up in the air.

What do you do?

In the face of such great uncertainty, you should focus on stabilizing the most important areas of your life. For most people, these would be financial security and getting a fixed accommodation.

For financial security, you can secure your finances first by doing some quick, odd jobs. You can also consider borrowing money from your friends back home and returning it once you get a job. The objective is to tide you over in the short term while you figure out what you want to do in the long term. You can take your time to look for a job that matches your aspirations once your short-term financial issues are addressed.

With your finances in place, you can look for a fixed accommodation. Look up craigslist, check the classifieds, search Google, or approach the hostel owners for help. Dedicate a couple of weeks for apartment hunting   and don’t stop until you find a place that meets your needs.. During this period, don’t worry yourself with other things.

How I Managed Uncertainty During My 7-Month Travel

While not exactly similar to the example above, my world trip from June last year through January this year was cloaked with much uncertainty at every point.

Throughout the seven months, I was traveling without a specific agenda. I would fleet from one place to another whenever the situation called for it, such as when I was invited for a work engagement, when a reader or ex-client offered to host me in his/her home country/city, or when I felt I had seen all there was to see in that country/city. I could be in Amsterdam today, with no plans on what I was going to do the next week, and suddenly decide to depart for London via the next train. I could be in London, with the intention to stay there for six months, and suddenly book a flight to Philadelphia the next week because I was invited to speak at a conference there.

Because of that, I rarely knew which country or city I would be in the next week, much less my exact accommodation.

How did I manage such day-to-day uncertainty? I did it by concerning myself with the most important thing(s) at that moment, and only that. This meant that if my key concern at that moment was getting an accommodation, I would focus my energy onto finding a decent accommodation that met my needs. If my key concern was getting to the next location safely, I would figure out how to do that and not worry about anything else. As for the other things, I would not even concern myself with them until my immediate concerns were addressed.

By adopting this approach, my seven-month travel was a huge breeze and a load of fun, despite the day-to-day uncertainty. I was able to foster lots of amazing friendships, see many great sights, experience intricacies of each country’s culture, and cover many countries and cities in great depth, without ever feeling apprehensive about the trip itself.

Final Words about Uncertainty

I hope you have found the three methods useful in managing uncertainty.

At the end of the day, uncertainty isn’t a bad thing. Some of you might find uncertainty unnerving and might resist it. However, know that it is through uncertainty that the best ideas are created, the best characters are molded, and the best lessons are learned. As I’ve shared before in one of my quotes in 101 Most Inspiring Quotes of All Time, Volume 2, “Fear, uncertainty and discomfort are your compasses toward growth.” (Celestine Chua)

In the past, I was focused on managing uncertainty. I would try to bring certainty to the uncertain elements of my life, and try to be in control of as many pieces of my life as possible.

Today, I’m more passionate about thriving in the face of uncertainty. I no longer worry about things that are uncertain. Instead, I focus on living in the present and enjoying every moment I’m in. I work through whatever uncertainty that is hindering me in my goals, but basically uncertainty no longer bothers me like it would before. Learn to embrace uncertainty and you may well feel the same way one day.

Do share this article on Facebook and Twitter. Pass it along to someone who may be facing uncertainty in his/her life. Thank you — I really appreciate it!

Often times, uncertainty comes hand in hand with decision making. Here’s an article on decision making I wrote in June: How to Make Life’s Hardest Decisions (3 Useful Decision Making Methods To Help You Solve Current Dilemmas)

Image: Tossing a coin

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