In February this year, my husband and I were walking hand in hand, scarely believing that we could finally relax a bit — his micro brewery was going well after a career of creating award-winning beer for other people, he was finally successful making them for his own growing company.
We were a little over-extended, but the business plan was rock solid and the beer was flowing nicely. Heck, I said at one point, people drink beer in good times and bad.
A few weeks later, we were scrambling. My most recent contract had ended, I had two kids suddenly at home, while my two adult kids were struggling with their own young adult lives in a pandemic.
Nothing was certain — the brewery was closed to patrons, I was out of a job, my kids were canceling plans to travel and putting higher education on hold.
We weathered the spring and summer, adjusting as well all have around the world but things are far from certain. This morning, contemplating the upcoming fall and winter, I read this line — “Human beings have a natural tendency to perceive uncertainty in negative terms.”
Yes, yes we do. Thank you for that brilliant insight.
The opposite of uncertainty is boredom.
Sitting here at my writing desk looking out at the crisp fall day, pillowy clouds, turning leaves, the full gamut — I am at once grateful for having come through the spring and summer pretty well intact. I am also craving less uncertainty.
However, I know that a better stance might be to regulate uncertainty rather than pray for less of it.
First, it won't work. The one thing we can be certain of in a fully engaged life is uncertainty. And the opposite of uncertainty is boredom. While spates of boredom can be extremely helpful for gaining a new perspective, honestly, given a choice between extreme uncertainty and extreme boredom, I would choose neither.
Choose Well-Regulated Uncertainty — AKA Balance
Let's consider what uncertainty can help with. The emotion often associated with uncertainty is worry. Healthy worrying about things that are happening in your life right now can help you get what you want in life and help you find original solutions.
Now all you need to do is regulate it. Notice I didn’t say “control”. It’s more like a thermostat, or the burner on the stove: Try for regulation, a gentle tempering of the heat, so that your worry can help you, instead of hurting you.
Ways to Regulate Uncertainty
Emily Oster, an economics professor at Brown University, has successfully used economics principles to help her make day to day decisions, notably around parenting. She suggests using five steps that economists use intheir practice to help frame decisions and regulate risk and uncertainty.
- Frame the question. (Clearly define two or three options, instead of trying to evaluate infinite or indistinct possibilities.)
- Mitigate risk. (What’s the safest way to execute those options?)
- Weigh the downsides.
- Weight the upsides. (Don’t overlook these.)
As an example, Emily Oster mentions in the article linked above about how to make the decision to co-sleep with your baby. I had four sons, each two years apart. The decision to co-sleep did not start with a clear headed "framing of the question".
The decision happened quite by accident, when I literally fell asleep in my son's crib. I could not more frame that question than I could remember my name I was so tired. With very little rational thinking and zero evaluation, I got rid of the crib, invested in a double bed for the littlest, shoved it into a corner of the room, and continued sleeping, often with a baby and toddler, sometimes including a pre-schooler and, yes, occasionally all five of us at once.
Luckily, the evidence is on my side for this one. The practice of co-sleeping is not risk-free, but quite low risk, and I do not fall into any of the higher-risk categories.
However, when possible, getting to step one may be a bit easier after using a few easy tools to get calm, centered, and ready to think more clearly.
Worry Dolls and Letting Go
We have several sets of worry dolls in our house. These are a set of small dolls kept in a little box that you can tell your worries to and then put them in the box so they can hold your worries for you and you can let them go.
Whether you use literal worry dolls or not, try setting aside around 15 minutes a day to let go of the worries that you cannot solve right now: write them out, tell your worry dolls, walk them off (I find labyrinths work for me, tbh) pray, etc.
During this time, you may realize that some worries have easy, practical solutions. Awesome. Still others are really hypothetical and you don’t need these. Practice letting go of these with compassion.
Finally, some may need to be given more thought. For these, once your mind is settled and clear, begin by framing the problem/question.
Frame The Question/Problem
When you're clear headed and more or less worry-free, it's a bit easier to consider your problem as one with a few options, rather than a catastrophic, infinitely wide problem with no clear edges.
Think about the difference between these two:
1. How can we live with no income and kids to support with no retirement, no savings, and a ton of bills each month?
2. How can we best use our time/money right now?
That second question is calming, has defined parameters, and is easily answered. It's still a bit vague, but I find that it's more than okay to take framing the problem/question step by step, refining as you go.
In this specific case, I decided to tease out the fact that we as a couple have more time and less money. More time can mean more time to take long walks, plan calmly for a new future, spend quality hours cooking at home, exercising, doing that stuff we all know we should do but often can't because we're too busy.
Mitigate Risk — Make Safe and Sane Choices
In that same case, time flowed freely, but we did have a mortgage to pay and bills, and people to feed.
We used our time to carefully consider options and in the end, invested in equipment for the brewery that enabled them to step up their off-site production and invested a ton of emotional support in my short term decision to quietly look for work while also supporting my kids and family.
All that emotional work takes time and effort. After having spent 12 years homeschooling, working, and mothering the four boys, I know well that it's important to do what is necessary to take care of myself.
Weigh Upsides and Downsides
Emily Oster and I have slightly different language for the next couple steps. I think of the upsides and downsides of the decision and weigh them together. If the upsides exist and there is no real downside, I usually just say Yes.
If the upside is small and there is a risk of a large downside, I usually say No.
The downsides of the brewery equipment were actually quite small. The upsides were obvious. We went for it, and they began canning beer, selling in a much wider area than they were going to do originally.
My decision to look for work but do it carefully also needed upside/downside weighing. The downside was simply that I might not find work as quickly, as I was (and am) unwilling) to relocate for work. The upside is that my family continues to be cared for. In our case, we reevaluated things, gave up extras and began to eat way more beans and rice.
Make Your Decision
We made our decisions and so far, so good. Of course, we're moving into a fall and winter of more uncertainty.
Don’t forget that the opposite of uncertainty is boredom. We'll always have uncertainty. We need to spend the time now to learn how to tackle it so we can avoid burnout and learn to live large.