“To dare is to lose one’s footing momentarily. Not to dare is to lose oneself.” -Soren Kierkegaard
“A journey of a thousand miles begins with one step.” -Lao Tzu
Today’s Wireboard starts with a little physical activity. And given the fact that sitting is the new smoking, we could all use it! It’s easy and there are just three steps. I’ll wait while you do them:
- Stand up.
- Take the slowest step forward you’ve ever taken.
- Take a couple more just as slowly.
What was that like for you? Notice anything? When I did this exercise, I noticed two things: First, when we’re walking, we’re constantly shifting weight between one leg and then the other. Second, there’s a subtle act of balance when we only have one foot on the ground. But we usually don’t notice the shifting or balance because we do it so quickly and we’ve been walking for so many years.
In the decades between being a toddler and being elderly, we take that challenge of balancing in the in-between steps for granted. It just happens naturally (unless we’re rehabbing an injury or we’ve had one too many at happy hour).
Now, do the walking slowly exercise again, but this time notice how you feel at the moment you have only one foot on the ground and then how you feel when you have two feet on the ground.
I’m betting that you felt a mildly unpleasant feeling when you were on one foot and a mildly pleasant feeling when you were on both. If you added a tiny leap in between the steps you might feel a more than mild sense of discomfort. Two feet on the ground puts us at ease; one foot less so, and no feet can be frightening by comparison.
Our brains are hard-wired to prefer the ease, certainty and stability of two feet on the ground. But sticking with certainty takes us nowhere, literally. In life, when we need to take a small step or big leap (eg. when we need to move from one place to another), how we imagine the experience of being in-between the take-off and landing can make the difference between getting what we want out of life or not. In almost every context of life, people have to be willing to take risks every now and then or risk, as Kierkegaard says, losing ourselves.
Our fear of taking a leap is not so much about landing in a different place from where we were. Our fear is the uncertainty of what happens after we’ve left our secure, familiar ground. Will we land where we want and will we land safely? The less certainty about the outcome, the more fear.
In a study published last year on stress and uncertainty, researchers at the University College of London Institute of Neuroscience studied how people responded to predictable negative outcomes versus unpredictable negative outcomes. What they found was that facing a 50% chance of a negative outcome was more stressful than a 90% chance. Put another way, the uncertainty we experience is more stressful than an actual negative outcome. Humans appear to be wired to seek certainty (even if the certainty is a negative). But if we are ever to move beyond where we currently are, we have to increase our willingness to manage uncertainty and the stress that comes with it.
So the question is: how do we overcome this uncertainty-induced stress? How can we navigate the discomfort of taking a step? Because we can stay right where we are, in a place of comfort and stagnation, or we can choose to take to the air and find growth.
I’d like to share a few approaches that I’ve used to help manage this fear of uncertainty in the midst of taking a positive step. If we can change our mindset about the uncertainty, we might be able to make these positive steps more easily.
Three tips to manage fear of the in-between:
- Be mindful of your discomfort with uncertainty: Put yourself in observation mode and notice how much fear you have about the unknown. How do you feel when you’re traveling? Are you comfortable with the journey or only when you arrive at your destination. I tend to notice that when I’m in a new city I feel the most comfortable when I’m in the hotel room. Venturing out always creates a little nervous anxiety/excitement, both positive and negative. When we make that shift from simply feeling anxiety to noticing and observing our experience of anxiety, it allows us to respond to that feeling much more rationally and productively.
- Shift your perception of the odds towards more certainty (even negative certainty): Let’s say you’re considering changing your role at your organization. If you give yourself 50-50 odds on being happier and in the new one, you’re going to feel much more stressed about the change. Instead, put the odds closer to 20-80 in favor of greater happiness or against. If you decide to say there’s an 80% chance you’ll be less happy, play the “what if” game and ask yourself what’s the worst possible outcome. Chances are that the worst possible outcome is not as bad you think. Plus, this will reduce your anxiety around the change, while allowing you to conduct a strategic premortem on the proposed change (thus, actually increasing your odds of success!).
- Keep coming back to your purpose and vision: Remind yourself of the growth that awaits you on the other side of the leap. Keep this front and center in your thinking. This will keep you focused on actions that will move you towards your goal, while managing the natural stress that arises from being in-process.
Those are my three go-tos for helping myself and my clients take important steps and manage the anxiety that we all experience mid-step. What about yours? I would love to hear about them in the comments section!