In 2011 I was 30, single again, and working for a failing startup which was quickly running out of cash. To add insult to injury, the US immigration authorities were refusing to renew my work visa, which was supposed to be a mere formality, and my lawyer was telling me I needed to leave the country. Like, soon.
I ended up spending months in Warsaw, Poland, sleeping on a couch in one of our offices, and feeling acute anxiety about the future. Would I be able to come back? Would my company go bust? Would I have to start a new life from scratch somewhere after years in the US? It’s not really the stuff of Greek tragedies, I realize that, but for me at the time it was excruciating. Then, amidst this storm of uncertainty, something shifted and I suddenly, quite inexplicably, felt at peace.
It’s the things we can’t control that often give you the most grief: Waiting for a call back after an interview. Hoping that girl will go out with you again. Praying that you got the answer right on the exam. But being in this vulnerable positions is so unpleasant for many of us that we try to avoid it altogether. We evolve defense mechanisms to protect us not from real risks, but from “emotional risks,” and sacrifice our chances of happiness in the process.
These are, in my opinion, are the 5 top ways we do this:
We Refuse to Fail
Common wisdom among successful creators tells us to “Fail early, fail fast, fail often,” in order to learn the lessons that lead to success. But if our goal is to avoid emotional risk and uncertainty, this advice will fall on deaf ears. When we act from a place of fear and defensiveness, we avoid taking the risks that lead to success. We avoid trying, or just give up too quickly. As a result – we never truly succeed.
To avoid feeling uncertainty, we tend to over plan. We begin to imagine that if we only had an elaborate enough plan, we won’t have to experience this discomfort. Our plans become too-specific, too rigid, and entirely unpractical. And guess what? Our anxiety only rises. General Eisenhower once said “In preparing for battle I have always found that plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.” But when we run from uncertainty, we tend to focus on the plan and ignore the real battle.
We Avoid Hard Choices
Focusing on a single course of action is like putting your eggs in one basket. It increases emotional risk because it makes failure more clear cut, and creates a decision point that you might later regret. But focusing on your best course of action is often the right thing to do. If we don’t focus and make hard choices, we’ll never do truly well at anything, and we’re more likely to fail in business, art, or other demanding careers. Once again, avoiding emotional risk increases actual risk many folds.
We Cling to Our Ideas
It’s scary to live without a perfect map of right and wrong, the future, and the risks along the way. It’s scary but it’s true. If we wish to run away from those scary feelings, however, we’ll find any number of religious leaders, politicians, and ideologues who’ll be glad to provide us with “the answer.” If we’re not careful, we could fool ourselves into believing we have the right solutions even to situations we know almost nothing about. We’ll lose our natural curiosity and put on a show of certainty. As a result, we’ll never achieve true understanding.
We Pretend We’re Invincible
Most of us have had some success in life. We’ve done things we’re proud of. We overcame some real difficulties. And while those achievements may have been very long ago, and had very little to do with the problems we’re facing today, it’s tempting to start clinging to our old success, and construct a self-image that’s invincible. We do this not just to impress others, but to convince ourselves that we are up to the task. But it can go too far when this “pretend self” obscures real doubts, real questions, and real opportunities for growth.
So how did my own personal story end? Well, after three months abroad I had received my visa to return, we ended up selling the company to a Fortune 500 company, and my experience with uncertainty and anxiety led me to question the necessity of suffering in these situations. Uncertainty, I discovered during this adventure, can be unpleasant. But if we stop fighting it and let ourselves experience it fully, we can find our peace with it, live happier lives, and make wiser decisions as a result.
Eran Dror is an Israeli-born writer, journalist, and designer. His first book, The Book of Hard Truths, is an illustrated guide to the most universally resisted facts of life. Follow him on Facebook or Twitter.