A brilliant read by Carl Richards from The Behavior Gap…
Uncertainty Scares Us, But You Can Do Something About It
Can I be honest with you for a minute? I’ve struggled to write my column this week.
Given what happened in the presidential election and the response I’ve heard and seen around the world, I have no idea what to say about the markets, investing or budgeting.
I have no idea how this outcome will affect your ability to fund your retirement accounts or pay for your children’s college education. I don’t know if the markets will go up or down. I don’t know what it means for interest rates or home prices.
So, I’m not going to write about money this week. Instead, I’m going to write about uncertainty.
I know about uncertainty and how to deal with it because it has been my job for the last 20 years. It turns out that the job of a real financial advisor involves helping people make important decisions in the face of irreducible uncertainty. Because after all the pretty forecasts and projections, no one has any idea what the future holds.
This election is one more example of it. Just a recap in case you’ve already forgotten: Most people did not think Donald J. Trump would win. Then, surprise! He did.
Buried deep in the range of extreme emotions we’re all feeling is something that scares us. We don’t like to talk about it much. We’ll even go to great lengths to create stories that tell us otherwise. But this election was a pointed reminder that we have less control than we would like over what happens in the world.
The reality of uncertainty scares us. We don’t like not knowing what the future holds. In fact, we have built an entire industrial certainty complex around paying people to tell us stories about the future so we can pretend we know what will happen.
Think of all the polls leading up to the elections. What did they matter?
After you decided whom you were voting for, what good did it do to spend even a second listening to the predictors? It was a total waste of time except for the little jolt of joy that comes from someone telling you what was going to happen. The future seemed certain.
We pay for people to whisper sweet promises of a certain future in our ears when it comes to our money as well. CNBC exists to fulfill this wish on a minute-by-minute basis. But the evidence is absolutely clear that trying to time the market based on what someone says on TV is a total waste of time.
So why do so many people do it every day?
Because we would rather be certain and wrong about the future than admitting we have no idea and reckoning with those feelings. But here is the reality: Uncertainty is reality. Most everything else is just a made-up story.
So, among the many other questions this election has raised for me, the only one I’m qualified to write about is this: How do we learn to live with it?
I’ve developed a personal framework that helps me, and I think it could help you, too.
Notice how you’re feeling. Simply noticing when you’re feeling anxious can help you identify your uncertainty. It reminds me of the story about a wise, old fish who asked a young fish, “How’s the water?” The young fish replied, “What water?” Don’t be the young fish. Noticing matters.
Separate the story from the reality. Now that we know how we feel, what else do we know? In this case, Mr. Trump is president-elect. That’s it. That’s the reality. Anything that goes beyond that fact is a story. Will he build a wall? Will he repeal the Affordable Care Act? Will he require a religious test to enter the country? Who knows, and the more we try to predict what will happen, the greater the anxiety. Stay focused on the reality.
Make a list. What can you control right now? The list won’t include big things like dealing with Russia and its president, Vladimir Putin. But you do have total control over how you treat your neighbor who didn’t vote the same as you or how you react to someone in the grocery store who looks different than you do. Anything that doesn’t appear on this list is out of your control, and by default, something that may cause you anxiety if you focus on it.
Do something. I know it sounds counterintuitive after you’ve just figured out how little, relatively speaking, that you control. But we can reduce our uncertainty and anxiety by acting on the things in our control. The smallest things matter. When we lost our home, I discovered that so many things were outside my control. The anxiety was crippling, but I discovered I could control one thing perfectly: my own breath. After a few days of focusing solely on my breathing, my sense of control expanded. For you, it may be something like reaching out to a friend or family member you argued with over the election. Invite them to dinner. Commit yourself to these small acts of kindness, and they’ll compound over time.
Repeat. Tempted to dismiss this as some sort of self-help nonsense? Well, what else is there to do? All we have left in the face of uncertainty is how we choose to treat ourselves and each other. And just imagine if everyone else followed your lead. There would still be uncertainty, but I’m betting it wouldn’t bother us quite as much.
I also know how unsatisfactory it can be to read something like this when if might feel as if your entire world is falling apart. All I can tell you is, the more I worked on this, the better I felt. I made a list of things I could control. On it was, “Write about uncertainty.” I did it. I feel better.
So what’s on your list? Email me at email@example.com. I want to hear what you wrote down, and I am excited to listen.
This column originally appeared at the New York Times on November 14, 2016.