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Embracing Uncertainty: How to Thrive During Change

By DeVry University

April 1, 2020
16 min read

While embracing uncertainty can be challenging, it can also present a great opportunity to work on ourselves and our own personal growth. In fact, it is often during uncertain times where we have the ability to stand up and become leaders for those who need the most help. This workshop highlights a few practical tips that you can leverage today and as you move forward in pursuing your personal and career goals.

Video Transcription

Welcome to today's workshop on thriving in uncertain times. Over the course of the next 10 to 15 minutes, my goal is to provide you with some tips on how you might accelerate yourself through uncertainty.

Meet the Presenter

My name is Dave Barnett and I'm the Chief Human Resources and University Relations Officer for DeVry University. In my role, I'm responsible for making sure we have the right talent in the university, serving our students, and I set the strategy around our culture and our internal and external communications strategy. I've been fortunate enough in my career, over the past 20 years, to talk to a number of groups about the concepts of navigating change, leading change, culture, and various different types of leadership. This is a topic that, even in tough times, I really enjoyed speaking about on a number of occasions.

Ambiguous Times are Hard

As we get into today's tips, it's first important to recognize that embracing uncertainty is really difficult. Ambiguous times are hard, and that happens for a number of reasons. First, we all struggle with partial information. When we think about gaps in information or pitfalls and holes in the road, we all want to fill those in with partial information. We want to fill those in with things that we find because ultimately, we don't like this notion of there being an unknown.

I often think about when I was a child going to my local haunted house. Our local haunted house was hosted in the pool house at our community pool, and my neighbors were the different Draculas and monsters and ghouls that were in the haunted house. And I'd been in that pool house hundreds of times. But no matter what, when I would go into that haunted house, I would start to sweat. I would get nervous. I would get that pit in my stomach. And the reason that would happen is because they turned the lights off. There were dark corners, there were dimly lit pathways. And taking a place that was familiar to me, but turning out the lights and making it dark, suddenly made it feel incredibly unfamiliar.

You see, that's what it's like as we go through ambiguity. In so many ways, it's just like someone turned out the lights. And the rules under which we operate aren't the same. We have to behave differently. We can't do the things we always did because we're not quite sure how to interact and how to move forward. Our ability to keep our eyes on the horizon and see what's up ahead is suddenly diminished, and all we can do to keep moving forward is to move our eyes down to our feet. To start to look at the next few steps, the next few days, the next few hours, as our guide to how we continue to navigate the world. Unfortunately, that feels very foreign. That feels very difficult, and that is what can be really difficult for us. But the reality is, by embracing uncertainty, by dealing with the ambiguity, we can actually create opportunity.

Ambiguity Presents Opportunity

You see, when we move forward through ambiguity, when we find that way to put one foot in front of the other, when we find that way to take just those few steps at a time, suddenly our relative velocity increases. If we're one of the few folks who have this figured out, that more effectively can place one foot in front of the other, we suddenly have more velocity relative to those around us who might be having a hard time. That gives us a few opportunities.

One is we increase our relative velocity. It gives us an opportunity to stand out from the pack, to demonstrate our own personal value and show how we can lead others. Second, it gives us the opportunity to reach backward or reach down and pull others along with us. It gives us the opportunity to set a pathway for others, and not only help ourselves but help the others around us. As we start to get that sense of momentum, as we start to get that ability to put one foot in front of the other in every step we take where we don't step into a hole, we start to heal. We start to heal ourself because we build our confidence, and we build new rules in our mind and start to figure out how to navigate uncertainty. And as we pave that path, others can follow and do the same and begin to forge their own paths as we help them build their confidence.

Also, during times of uncertainty, we tend to find time. Things that we always did perhaps don't need to be done or can't be done, or we lose the opportunity to spend our time in the way we did. That found gift in that time gives us an opportunity to embrace the uncertainty. To truly get in and say, how do I use this time in a different, more productive way? In a different similarly productive way? But how do I use the time that I now have so that I can ultimately set the tone and set the pace? And that's important, right? Set the tone, set the pace. You can control you. So how are you going to approach each day? What's the pace you're going to move through each day with? And you do have control over that.

So, you see, when we talk about embracing uncertainty, we suddenly begin to recognize that ambiguity presents an opportunity to us. And when we talk about that idea of embracing uncertainty, of thriving in uncertain times, I think there's eight tips that have jumped out to me across the course of my career. That have been what's been key for me personally in navigating times of uncertainty. Today I'll share those tips with you. These are based on my own experience. Some of them may really resonate for you, some of them may seem far-fetched, but what I've found is these are the things that helped me. Let's jump in. Let's take the first tip.

  1. Control the Controllable

    Tip number one, control the controllable. I know that sounds redundant, but the reality is there's a number of things in this world – far, far more than there are things that we can control – that we just have no control over. In fact, there's a number of things that we think we control, but really we can only just influence. And so, there's really three bubbles. There's things we control, things we influence, and things that are entirely outside of our control.

    During times of uncertainty, it's so easy for us to focus on those things that are outside of our control. Absolute decisions that have been made by others, the actions of others, environmental factors, challenges and problems. All of those things come in from the outside and they're externalities that we can't change or control.

    But what we can control is ourself. We can control the actions we take, the message we send, the way we show up for those around us. We can control the way we take those steps forward each day that I talked about. In a world that seems to be spinning out of control with a number of things that are uncertain and difficult that are coming at you, we can find peace by taking time to purposefully and diligently sit down to name the things that we can control. And make purposeful plans around how we're going to focus on each of those things that we can control to contribute to moving ourselves and those others around us forward. So, tip one is, control the controllable.

  2. Know What You Know, and What You Don’t Know

    Tip number two, know what you know and know what you don't know. That's such a critical differentiation. First and foremost, take time to acknowledge – here's the things we know. Here's the things that I know to be fact, that are actual information from a reliable source that I can trust to be known facts. But then don't stop. Move to the next phase and talk about, here's the things I don't know. Perhaps you've heard conjecture, perhaps you heard opinions. Perhaps you've hypothesized or theorized on what those things might be, what various explanations might be, what new timelines might be.

    Recognize those aren't known things. Recognize what you know, and then recognize what you don't know. Write down those things that you know. Write down those things that you don't know. And as you speak with others, be transparent about, here's what we know today and here's all of the things we don't know. Acknowledging or owning the things that aren't known is not a sign of weakness. That is in fact a sign of strength of the very best leaders, who recognize that every day is a learning journey. Every day is a journey in discovery, and we're always seeking more information to build out fuller and fuller models in our minds. So, know what you know and know what you don't know, and tell others.

  3. Find Curious

    Number three, find curious. Find curious. It sounds so incredibly simple. But as we face tough challenges, as we face steep climbs, as we face uncertain roads, it's very difficult to point out all of the perils, to see the challenges, to be overcome by fear. Often in that upcoming journey, there is some good. Often in that upcoming journey, you're stronger than you even think you are. Find curious, become inquisitive, become curious about what are the things that might be possible? What might I learn about myself on this journey? What might I be able to do? What might be better on the other side? As we start to move toward a curious state, as we start to move toward this natural idea of considering possibilities, often our anxiety lessens, and we start to find the good in the path forward where we can find gems along the way.

    This becomes a tipping point and an accelerator for us as we try to move forward through uncertain times.

  4. Look Inside – Supercharge Your Strengths

    As we move on, the next tip, look inside and supercharge your strength. What a great opportunity as you're looking to pivot. As you begin to scan the landscape and figure out what a path forward might look like, you truly double down on the strengths you bring to the table. Use this as an opportunity to reflect.

    We talked about found time, right? Use this as a chance to be introspective, and on this first half of this double tip, identify your strengths. What are those things you do better than anyone else? If you were to pull out a pen and paper and write down your superpower, what's your superpower? And look into how can I use those strengths today to add value, and how can I even further develop those strengths so that I stand out even greater on the other side?

  5. Look Inside – Fill the Gaps

    And during that journey of introspection, also, take time to name your gaps. People talk about shoring up a weakness or find the problem areas and figure out these areas where you're deficient. I don't say it like that. I think instead, we all are beings that are incredibly powerful that have a tremendous amount of strength, but each of us has known gaps. Things that we say. One of my barriers to success is that I just don't have enough knowledge in X area, or I'm just not as great as this. Or man, if I just had the time, I wish I could learn more about this topic.

    Now's the time. Use this opportunity to find one, two, three, skill gaps that you think are critical areas, that you know if you invest in them, you'll emerge on the other side a stronger individual. And invest in those gaps, find resources, find a way to grow and develop in those areas. Use this as an opportunity to learn things that you think are critical to who you want to be, to the path you want to use going forward, to be more successful.

    So, two key tips. They are, one, look inside and supercharge your strength. Double down on those areas where you are really outstanding. Two, look inside and fill the gaps. Look for those places that you believe inhibit you, where you just wish you had more knowledge or skill and invest in growing those out. Emerge on the other side of stronger individual.

  6. Create Value

    The next tip, create value. During times of uncertainty, the opportunities are flourishing, to go forth and create value. An earmark of my career, something that I've defined myself by is, I want to be the person that runs to the fight. In times of uncertainty, there's challenging things, there's fires, there's pitfalls, there's snakes. We have seen lots of things that are frightening. Be the person who finds a way to add value during those times of uncertainty.

    Run in. Leverage those strengths and add value. Add value by helping others. Add value by solving a difficult problem. Add value by communicating. Add value by being a phenomenal listener. There are so many ways to add value. Find your superpower and use it to add value. And when you're out there actively adding value, two things happen. One, suddenly, you emerge and feel better. You've created value and your self-worth will begin to ratchet up. Every time you find an opportunity to have a value adding moment, your confidence, your ability to embrace the uncertainty, will move exponentially higher. Because you just trained yourself. You just showed yourself that you can do it. You can add value still. And by creating value, you improve the situation and position of the others around you.

    By giving value to others, you are helping them. One, they receive the value and two, they see the opportunity to do the same for the next person. The value can be exponential as it moves through networks of people, so look for opportunity to find value and create value for those around you.

  7. Take Care of You

    This next tip is one of the hardest tips that I think exists during times of uncertainty, and that's take care of you.

    If I go around and talk with different people as I interact with our colleagues, and colleagues in different organizations, and my peers in various networks, what I tend to find is we are so frequently wired to be helping. We're looking to help our families, our friends, our colleagues, our peers. We're looking to find ways to care for those around us. And in our busy lives, we all too often do that at the expense of caring for ourselves.

    The visual we put on the slide makes me laugh because the most tangible example that we all deal with is this example of flying on an airplane. When they always tell us, put your mask on first before helping others. And it's true. If you can't find oxygen through your mask, you can't help others put their masks on.

    Take time to care for you. Carve out time every day to do whatever it is that charges your battery. For me, my batteries are charged through exercise. So, I find an opportunity to get in 30 to 45 minutes of exercise every day, and I crank that up when I'm going through uncertainty. For others, it might be reading a book. It might be spending time with your kids or with a loved one or a friend. It might be a particular hobby. It might be a long walk. It might be throwing the ball around with your dog. Whatever it is, find a way to take care of you in a safe and reasonable way. Because when you charge your batteries, you can do tremendously more for others.

  8. Emerge

    And finally, the last tip that I have for you in this process is to emerge. And that sounds silly. How is that a tip? Of course, we emerge. We come out the other side, we do this. But give yourself permission to emerge. Sometimes we get so focused on the change, we get so much momentum trying to work through it, we come out on the other side and don't even realize that we've made it. That we've made it through the chain. So, take a moment. When you've gone through a period of ambiguity, when you've gone through this process that has questioned what you knew to be reality, you've walked through the dark haunted house and you've come out on the other side, kiss the ground. Take a moment, celebrate, take a breath and reflect back on how that period of uncertainty, how that window of change shaped the individual that you are.

    What did you learn? How did your strengths help you to add value? What gaps were you're able to fill up? How did you connect with others? How did you connect with yourself? What will you take from that period of uncertainty and leverage as you go forward into the next period of uncertainty? How did you win during that period? How did you lose? And take a moment to be grateful. Take a moment to recognize what you're grateful for as you emerge from a period of change.

That's the model. In this short session, we've talked about eight key tips to thriving during uncertain times.

We've talked a lot about how you can personally embrace uncertainty. By one, controlling the controllables. Focus on those things you can control to help you feel more comfortable, versus worrying about the things spinning around you that you can't control. Two, know what you know and know what you don't know. Overtly and purposefully recognize those things that are facts and those things that are unknown and be generous in sharing that with others. Create space for the unknown so you can fill it with facts versus filling it with hypotheses and conjecture.

Three, find curious. Think about possibilities. Be open to the idea that there is good and that you may grow through this process and be curious about what that looks like. Tip four, look inside and supercharge your strength. What makes you a personal superhero and how will you leverage that strength both now and in the future? What might you now have time to do to invest in your strengths that you couldn't? Tip five, look inside and fill the gaps. Every one of us has skill gaps, has knowledge gaps that we'd say if I just had time, I would spend some time on it. Take the time now to name those gaps and pursue opportunities to shore those, up to fill those in, and become even better on the other side.

Tip six, create value. When we're out adding value for our colleagues, for our friends, for our family, for our communities, when we create value, we feel better. We have a sense of worth and it helps us to move forward every single day. We also help others because we not only give them the value, we model how they might do so as well and improve their worth. It creates an exponential effect. So, look for ways to create value.

Tip seven, take care of you. Put your mask on first on the figurative airplane. Because when you're caring for you, you charge your batteries so that you're able to care for them. And finally, tip eight, give yourself permission to emerge. When you reach the other side, recognize that you've gotten there. Take a deep breath of fresh air and celebrate those things that you achieved. Be grateful for all that you've gained through the process. From thriving now.

That's what I have for you today. I hope this was beneficial. I hope you were able to take at least a few things away from this session, and I hope that everyone has a fantastic day. Until next time, take care.

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