The hardest lesson over the last 6 months, since I quit my job and threw myself into self-employment, has been learning the value of uncertainty.
Here is what I used to think uncertainty meant:
- Allowing my many insecurities to flood to the surface and drown my confidence
- Emotional paralysis – where you’re so worried you can’t open up to anything and anyone
- An inability to enjoy the present
- An inability to enjoy the future
- The rock-solid inevitability of failure
Last Tuesday I sat on a chair on a spotlit stage in London (more on that soon) and told a crowd of 60 people that uncertainty is a good thing. I told them that when my travel plans had gone awry, I’d had the most memorable – good and bad – experiences, and it’s those memories that inspire me to travel further. I told them that good stories happen when plans fall apart and scripts start writing themselves – a line I repeated when Pam Mandel asked me for a quote for the TBEX Girona Creative Writing workshop she was running with the incorrigible Will Peach. Debbie Wosskow of LoveHomeSwap made the valid point that when you have dependents, planning ahead becomes more of a factor, even essential. I stuck with my “assemble your parachute as you fall” schtick.
Do I really believe what I was saying?
Do I feel it?
Every day, that is a battle I have to fight.
I am a product of a certainty culture. Very early on, my parents instilled in me the unquestionable value of having a job, any job, because of the financial security it brought, and it really didn’t matter what I did as long as it translated into a wage. This applied in a wider sense. Experiences were things to be managed, controlled, nailed down. Chaos was the enemy, and it was to be fought with hard-headed predictability. My mid-teens were all about preparing for the Royal Air Force, following my father into aircraft engineering. My late twenties were about preparing for University, taking course after course to gain enough qualifications to allow me to go to the University of York and become an archaeologist. Huge swathes of my life were defined by complete certainty of where I would inevitably end up…
And defined by mediocrity.
I’m really bad at doing things I hate, just to earn the money. (Really bad).
I’ve been reading a lot about uncertainty over the last few years. The reason for that is that I’ve been reading a lot about success in business. These two things overlap so much that they may as well be regarded as one thing (and I think Jonathan Fields would agree). Successful people, particularly startup entrepreneurs but pretty much everyone working successfully in creative, “stuff-making” fields of work, are successful because they did things that weren’t guaranteed to work out, and they did this with the big things, the high stakes, where failure would mean a significant blow to their plans, where it might destroy them completely. They plucked up their courage and they went for it, using all their skills to engineer success but accepting that those skills might not be enough.
Occupational semi-uncertainty, for me, has meant fear – even dread, at times. It has meant worrying about making payments on time, about letting people down, myself included. It has meant feeling like I am doing something reckless and stupid with my life to the point that someone should probably intervene, for my own good. It has felt like I was being a stupid, irresponsible kid that just needs to grow the hell up before it’s too late.
But more and more, leaving my imminent future uncertain has meant these things:
- “Being scared” is another way of saying “being super-aware of everything”
- The freedom to take work when it comes along, and to chase it when it doesn’t
- The freedom to change course on a dime (or a penny, since I’ve never even seen a dime. Damn you, America).
- Job satisfaction – excitement, variety, the opposite of boredom
- In a very unexpected way….job security. My income is directly related to the effort I put into hustling for, securing and completing work. It is pretty much 1 to 1. (My inner control freak would be dancing a jig if it wasn’t cowering in a corner).
- The chance to do more of the things I love and get paid for them
- Seeing more of my friends
- Earning more money from doing work I enjoy
- Better health
- Greater focus while I work, translating to a tougher work ethic
- A greater capacity for handling more uncertainty
I cannot avoid concluding that as a human being, I respond better to a murkier future, one in which the rules are in flux, I’m always sorta-kinda lost and thinking on my feet, where everything is possible, and where every day has a disturbing amount of leaping into the dark attached to it.
I cannot avoid concluding that if “normal life” is about doing the things I used to do, then I was really rubbish at normal life.
(Well, that’s certainly an embarrassing thought).
How is this all going to pan out? I’m uncertain.
And you know? I think I’m totally fine with that.
Image: jeroen bennink