These days, there’s lots of talk about the crisis of meaning spawned by the pandemic and the reckoning with toxic workplaces, relationships and people.
Indeed, recent research suggests more than half of all people in various fields and aspects of life are considering serious life changes because they feel their old values and lifestyles are no longer valid or working. Some of us have felt a sudden burst of clarity about what we do — and don’t do — which always brings focus to the present moment in our lives. But what if you don’t know for sure? What if, beyond your general sense of malaise or misgiving, you’re saddled with a deeper sense of uncertainty about what you want next?
In my view, there’s nothing to worry about if you’re going through some of this existential life ruminations but are unsure of the path forward. In fact, not knowing what to do may be your biggest advantage. I believe there’s value in sitting with this liminal state of uncertainty. In my experience, many who claim to have the answers may have defined a “purpose” merely to sooth their previously unacknowledged lack of significance, or they’ve simply managed to persuade themselves that they have a firm idea but ignored the many options and possibilities available. In a way, people search for meaning like a drunken person searches for their lost house keys — next to the lamp post, not because that’s where they dropped them, but because that’s the only easy place they can see.
Let the unknown open you to possibilities. – Absent the “answer” to what’s next, uncertainty raises better questions about what could be next. Not having a specific destination to fixate on (e.g., I want to be a life coach or I’m going to be a veterinarian) allows you to step back and wonder about life paths you might never have considered.
Learn to read the right signs. – Like driving on an unfamiliar highway, ambiguity forces us to be alert. The key is to be alert with curiosity, not fear. For too many, life uncertainty and its resulting anxiety lead to suboptimal choices. Fearing our obsolescence, lack of employability, or that we’re ill equipped to convince others of our value, we sell ourselves short. We ignore the signs that might be pointing us to something adventurous and settle for something familiar, even if it’s unsatisfying.
Be foundational in defining your life. – Take advantage of your current liminal space by stepping back and inventorying your list of competencies to ensure the widest possible applicability of what you’re good at. Identify areas where you want to develop. In much the way that researchers conduct foundational or exploratory research to uncover new problems, defining your life in terms of skills rather than success or failures will widen your aperture. Ask yourself: Are there areas where you need to deepen any skills? Then go for it and develop strategies to reach your new perspectives.
Allow ambiguity to make you more adaptable. – The constant turbulence of today’s world demands the ability to turn on a dime when needed. But humans are predictability-seeking machines, and we don’t like pivoting unless we’re forced to. What if, instead, you allowed yourself to lean into the discomfort? By facing ambiguity, you weaken its grip, making the unknown less terrifying. Instead of asking, “What threat do I need to mitigate? in the face of the unknown, ask, “What does this ambiguity free me up to do that greater certainty wouldn’t?
Learn to live purposefully. – While the hyper-specific nature of a personal “purpose statement” is alluring, it’s often rooted in false precision. Frequently, personal purpose devolves into generalized sloganeering that feels inspiring, but offers little practical guidance. For example, to feel more control over your time, what habit could you build into your routines to carve out time for yourself — to explore future options, to practice self-care, to spend more time with friends?
Shaping the next chapters of your life deserves all the time, care, and attention you can give it. Don’t resist the uncertainty, embrace it. Like buried treasure, it holds clues to possibilities you’ll be glad you didn’t rush past once you discover them.
Peace and Love, Jim