Many of the founders I partner with are leading a company for the first time and all of them are doing something unique that has never been done before. This means I spend a lot of time with people who have to make decisions without knowing the right answer.
This is hard. It can be overwhelming.
“Comfort with uncertainty” is a term I hear a lot but I have never found real comfort in the moment of not knowing. When I have to make decisions where the best answer is unknown, my belief that I know is often the only thing that allows me to function and move forward. Sometimes, as evidence builds that I am wrong, I hold on to the belief that I am right and continue to feel certain, in a very irrational way. It can feel like a matter of survival. I have done this as a
partner, parent and spouse. It stops me from being my best.
I did some reading about this need to feel certain and there is research about the discomfort of uncertainty. Even more important, the discomfort is actually physical and in the same way we jump at a surprising loud noise, we are programed to seek the comfort of certainty — we chase the feeling of knowing like the surface of the water when we have been under too long.
Here is an exercise from early in the book that makes this point about the feeling of knowing — read it and really sit with the feeling:
This specific discomfort and the deep need to avoid it makes reading that paragraph feel terrible, stressful and heavy for me. This desire to feel that I know is a physical urge and can override more rational thought. The word that unlocks the paragraph is kite, and when I re-read it knowing that, I felt so good I laughed out loud. I felt relief, I felt I should have known, I told myself with a little more time, I would have figured it out — but most important, I was so uncomfortable reading it the first time, I could not wait to jump to the answer, get rid of my feeling of not knowing and have it all make sense.
Leading a startup comes with many more feelings of “not knowing” than feelings of “knowing” and this discomfort can make it hard to be your best. I think recognizing the need to feel like we know, naming the discomfort of not knowing and sharing it with peers, partners and friends, can help — and maybe, with the right support around the table, let you remain uncomfortable and “not know” long enough to discover the best answer to any challenge.