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The problem with certainty

Posted in the following categories: Personal Development

Falls flat somehow.

That was the sentence Isaac Asimov wrote in his diary after he received an “incredible sum” of money for publishing a short story called The Mule.

The payment for that one story was about the same as what he made in his first three years as an author. Yet, it didn’t excite him. “Falls flat somehow,” he wrote. “Guess I’m so sure of sales these days, the thrill is gone.”

First world problems aside, Asimov’s quandary describes a common human condition.

We demand certainty out of life. We want to know exactly how things will turn out if we move to a new city, switch careers, or start a new relationship.

Yet the same certainty we demand from life sucks the thrill out of it. It undermines anticipation and sends you down a predetermined path to a known destination. “Certain success,” as Asimov writes, “evicts one from the paradise of winning against the odds.”

Imagine demanding the same type of certainty from your entertainment choices.

If you knew exactly what happens in Asimov’s Foundation series, you wouldn’t read the books.

If you knew who the killer is in The Undoing, you wouldn’t watch the show (I stopped watching movie trailers a long time ago for this very reason. In a misguided effort to entice audiences, they now give away half the movie).

If you knew that your favorite soccer team would win every game, even the most diehard fan would quickly get bored.

Yet, when it comes to our own life, we want to know exactly how every game is going to end before we even start playing it. This attitude makes sense for basic human needs—like water, food, and shelter—but for others, it robs our life of adventure and the joy of not knowing what happens next.

So we dance the same choreographed dance, play the same tired routines, and repeat the same old performance. Life becomes a daily choose-your-adventure game that always ends the same.

When I find myself yearning for certainty—and it happens more often than I like to admit—I try to bring the same mindset to my life that I bring to a movie or a book with surprising twists and turns along the way.

I remind myself that the things that matter most to me (my family, health, relationships) will still be there even if I step into the unknown.

I tell myself to not just step into the unknown but to dance with it, to relish in the pleasure of not knowing, and to embrace the joy of “I’ve never done this before, and I have no idea how it will turn out.”

I know this is harder than it sounds.

Our fear of uncertainty, to paraphrase Elizabeth Gilbert, is like a shopping mall cop who believes he’s a Navy SEAL: “He hasn’t slept in days, he’s all hopped up on Red Bull, and he’s liable to shoot at his own shadow in an absurd effort to keep everyone ‘safe.’”

Here’s the thing: Uncertainty rarely produces a disaster. Uncertainty opens the door to joy, discovery, and the fulfillment of your full potential. Life offers more of itself when we treat uncertainty as a friend, not a foe.

Where certainty ends, adventure begins.

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