On Uncertainty

Updated: Nov 14, 2019

It’s the time of year when everything starts to change. You leave the house in just a t-shirt and one coat - no layers! - and the cold no longer makes you wince. The trees blossom seemingly overnight. Your phone starts pinging again on a Friday afternoon – friends are out again, or want to be.

While the end of winter is always longed for, the shift into a new season can be unsettling. Days that were blanketed by long stretches of darkness and domesticity suddenly leave you blinking in a bright and sudden light. Or perhaps it's just that everything is unsettling right now. That fizzy, up-in-the-air feeling that often accompanies the transition from winter to spring has become our new normal, as we attempt to navigate a world where nothing feels certain anymore, not even the meteorological seasons (and perhaps those least of all).

Last week, I made my first trip home to London in more than six months. As always, I’ve been soothed by the city's abundant green space and quiet side streets: Even in the throes of Brexit bedlam, the jittery heartbeat of anxiety throbs a little less audibly here than in New York. But over dinners and catch-up talks, the same uneasy conversational threadlines emerge: financial prospects, environmental challenges, global political meltdown. At a point in our lives when many of us are experiencing a natural craving for rootedness, friends on both sides of the Atlantic seem equally unsure of how to lay solid foundations on ground that threatens to give way like quicksand.

After the comparative good times of the latter twentieth century - by this age, most of our parents had stable living situations, reliable income streams, us - we have woken up to “…a twenty-first century hangover, a long, jittery ride past militant triumphalism and economic overconfidence into endless war and endless uncertainty.” This makes life-planning feel like hard work, and long-term career planning seem equally opaque. It didn't surprise me to read that 30% of Millennial and Gen Z employees are experiencing work-disrupting levels of anxiety on a regular basis. After, all no-one seems to be really know what technology, climate change, and ongoing political turmoil will do to our lives and jobs.

How, then, to forge ahead? To evolve? Maybe even, against all odds, to thrive? Part of the answer surely lies in accepting rapid change as a defining trait of our generational experience, and equipping ourselves with the necessary survival kit. When it comes to work, that means developing AQ - or Adaptability Quotient, which is ‘the ability to adjust course, product, service and strategy in response to unanticipated changes in the market’ - and factoring ongoing instability into the game plan. (Read more on this from me over here.)

There's no doubt that things are changing faster than we any of us can hope to fully process. The good news is that there are millennia of wisdom from great thinkers offering advice on how to cope. As the existential psychologist Rollo May wrote in 'Love and Will' back in 1969: "History — that selective treasure house of the past which each age bequeaths to those that follow — has formed us in the present so that we may embrace the future. What does it matter if our insights, the new forms which play around the fringes of our minds, always lead us into virginal land where, like it or not, we stand on strange and bewildering ground. The only way out is ahead, and our choice is whether we shall cringe from it or affirm it.

Or, as Seneca put it almost two thousand years before: "The whole future lies in uncertainty: live immediately.”

Resisting the shifts that are happening in the world right now is as pointless as resisting the transition of the seasons, and human experience itself – which has always been, and will always be, defined by constant change. We shouldn't lament the past or spend too much time fearing the future, but rather steadily train our eyes on the ground that lies beneath us right now, scanning for signs of new life; fresh hope; a Spring that is still flourishing all around.


Age of Anxiety, The New Republic Read

On the Shortness of Life: Life Is Long If You Know How to Use It, Seneca Buy

Love & Will, Rollo May Buy

Millennials Experience Work-Disrupting Anxiety at Twice the US Average Rate, Quartz Read