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Uncertainty and change

By Peter Tapsell - posted Wednesday, 19 November 2008

Change. It’s a word that causes a lot of angst. Why? Because it brings uncertainty. Uncertainty is feared by many, and sometimes with good reason. There are some fundamentals in our lives that require a level of certainty so that we can function both as individuals and as a society. The need to know that we can feed ourselves, keep a roof over our heads, and stay reasonably safe are all important to being able to enjoy our lives.

But uncertainty and change also play a vital role in making our lives interesting. They bring stimulation to each day and force us into instances where we need to make decisions.

Imagine knowing what the outcome of every decision you make would be, or the outcome of every sporting contest before it happened, or even everyone you might meet during the day. While on the surface this may sound appealing, the interest in each day would rapidly decrease and be replaced by monotony; one long and tedious experience.


Uncertainty can provide more benefits than making life interesting. It helps us to grow as individuals. A moment of uncertainty can propel us into making a decision and potentially changing the course of our lives. This, at its core, is what uncertainty is all about. By forcing an individual to make a decision, uncertainty can assist a person in gaining some control of their life through taking responsibility for their future direction.

Unfortunately there are many who find decision-making, in one form or another, to be quite intimidating. The fear that the wrong decision might be made can lead to a paralysis and no decision being made. When this happens life can become stagnant in an area, and if it is a repeated outcome, life becomes stagnant in many areas. Without a decision opportunities are missed, and when this becomes a common occurrence, individuals can stop seeing those opportunities even when they are still there.

I understand that there are some people out there who find uncertainty so painful that, for instance, they find the idea of watching their favourite sporting team in real time action a form of torture. They would prefer to watch a recording only after the result is known, and they can thus shield themselves from watching a poor performance. Personally, I find watching a game where I already know the result to be quite boring. There is very little mystery left and no journey to take. There are only subdued emotions associated with such an activity. There is no angst when your team is behind, and no consequent relief and joy if it pulls off an unexpected win. There is very little drama to make it interesting. What is the point?

There have been studies that show that when people get put into a position of uncertainty, particularly in a decision is required quickly, they can panic and often make an unwise decision. This gives ammunition to those who see such instances as stressful and problematic, and long for certainty. However, learning to deal with such uncertainty is surely beneficial to us all. Avoiding it merely ensures that the same stress occurs the next time.

If you find uncertainty unsettling, think about this. When you do not know an answer there can be purpose and enjoyment in finding it out. Once the answer is attained there might be a fleeting moment of joy or elation, but then what? Certainty has returned to add some more dullness to your life.

Uncertainty also provides a platform by which we can evolve both technically and spiritually. What is and is not possible has changed throughout history as people have questioned the “certainty” that was prevalent at the time. There is no doubt that both socially and scientifically, some changes have been incredibly painful and have caused much anxiety and soul searching, however this is how we learn as a society, make new rules and improve lives.


The unexpected occurrence is one of the other benefits of uncertainty. While planned fun can be enjoyable, it is rarely as enjoyable as an unexpected benefit or social occasion. Conversely, the bolt from the blue that brings bad news is another part of uncertainty. Such bad news brings into context the joy that comes from the positive experiences. Without the balancing negative, similar positives are not possible. In between lies certainty, where little changes and little evolution of thought or character takes place.

Individuals need to be comfortable with the fact that they will make bad decisions every now and then. This is just part of life. Such decisions should not be dwelled on, or allowed to become a large barrier to future decision making. And also, seemingly bad decisions or outcomes can have unseen benefits that only become clear later on. Getting turned down when asking a girl out may lead you to the love of your life, who you might never have met if you hadn’t suffered some setbacks earlier on. When uncertainty is met head on, where small decisions are concerned, people are less likely to be intimidated by the bigger decisions that might come later in life.

Encouraging the younger members of society to take the consequences of their decisions and learn from them, without discouraging future decision-making is one of the challenges that society must overcome. The alternative is to wait for others to tell us what to do, and this is surely an inferior way to deal with uncertainty, as well as a lazy one that takes away the responsibility of the individual for their own life.

We should therefore embrace uncertainty, from early on, and acknowledge the developmental benefits it provides. After all, without a level of uncertainty there would be little point in getting out of bed in the morning. Embrace uncertainty and life becomes the richer for it.

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About the Author

Peter Tapsell has worked in universities, the mining industry, and government. He has also carried out some private consultancy work, mostly in areas related to the environment. He enjoys writing prose, verse and music and performing his creations. Peter blogs at I'd rather be at the Beach but ...

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