The Case for Uncertainty

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When Reverend Robert H. Schuller posed the now famous question: “What would you do if you knew you could not fail?”, I wonder if he had any thought of its ongoing impact – of how often it would be presented, posted (reposted), asked as a motivational tool. I get what he was going for, but the truth is, I’m kinda tired of this question.

I’m tired of it because I think it is the wrong question.

Let’s face it – for most of us, the truthful answer when asked “What would you do if you knew you couldn’t fail” would be, “What I did yesterday. What I am doing today. What I plan to do tomorrow.” We build our lives around daily routines that are composed of things we can’t fail at: eating, sleeping, working, laundry. On the micro/daily level we don’t fail at these. At the macro/lifelong level, we may question whether or to what degree we were successful at these things – but mostly we muddle through without labeling ourselves as failures. We feel secure in our “fail safe” routines, as if our lives are manageable, predictable.

Besides, we can all point out, in fact are hyper-aware of, the times we do or have failed. We deal with failure to the best of our ability and move on – what else can we do? There’s even a kind of trendy “failure is good” meme out there right now, encouraging people to take risks, reminding us of how many times Michael Jordan missed a basket or how many rejection letters J.K. Rowling got before someone agreed to publish the Harry Potter books. The message is that failure is a necessary risk if we hope to succeed at anything worthy in life. I don’t take issue or argue with this point.

However, last winter I read Brene Brown’s book, The Gifts of Imperfection, in which she alters Rev. Schuller’s famous question. Brown suggests that we ask ourselves, instead, “What is worth doing, even if I risk failure?” This raises the stakes by introducing the concept of uncertainty. Not “I can’t fail” but “I might fail”. I would argue that the most important word here isn’t fail, though that’s the word that captures our attention and most of our immediate fear. The word to pay attention to here is might.

What is glossed over or skipped entirely in most pep talks for daring greatly is that uncomfortable period during which we must live with uncertainty. If we want to create real change in ourselves, our lives or the world, we will have to get comfortable with uncertainty. “Real change only comes from encountering what is unfamiliar, what is new and unknown”, say authors Fred Mandell and Kathleen Jordan. “We can copy ourselves over and over again, every day. Or we can step into the unknown.” (from Becoming a Life Change Artist: 7 Creative Skills to Reinvent Yourself at Any Stage of Life).

Stepping into the unknown is uncomfortable. Un-easy. Underappreciated. I remember a conversation with a senior colleague, a woman the same age as me, in which I was told, “You still dream of accomplishing something new and different with your life? I’m not sure I do.” When I actually resigned my job of nineteen years, with no detailed plan for what came next, that same colleague called me courageous. At the time, I felt courageous – because I felt certain. Certain that leaving was the right decision. And,  though I am less likely to apply the “courageous” appellation now, I continue to feel that certainty.

But certainty is old news, or at least isn’t my uppermost experience these days. For months now I have been living with and in uncertainty. Living contentedly with the daily unknown of “What’s next?” comes neither easily nor naturally to me. Here’s what I think I’ve learned so far, the tentative case I am building for the importance of uncertainty:

  • Living in uncertainty, for any length of time, requires the development of trust. Trust that there is a higher purpose or good to be unearthed in my life, and trust in my ability to recognize it when it begins to unfold.
  • Expertise is a hard shield of certainty that can be used to protect us from the openness required of beginnings. Stepping out of my role as expert, no longer having a “professional pigeon-hole” in which to dwell and shedding certainty about what I know opens my mind to new thoughts about the world and the role(s) I wish to play in it.
  • Lacking certainty about tomorrow puts attention more squarely on today. Living in the present moment takes practice, and I wasn’t ever very good at it.  Now, though, it is abundantly clear when I stray out of the present – anxiety and fear serve as barometers that immediately register my movement into past recriminations or future fears.
  • In a similar vein, living with daily ambiguity forces me to be vulnerable – something I, for one, have always avoided. In the present I feel my emotions (is it ok to say I have a love/hate relationship with feelings?). But I also have the time to examine them and tease out the jumbled threads to understand them, something I could never do when time was always in short supply.
  • Uncertainty allows for play. Trying new things on for size. Engaging in exploration that can’t happen when every step is already mapped out. It allows us to give up, for at least some portion of time, the need to succeed and instead to focus on process rather than results. Carla Needleman, in The Work of Craft, says: “…the desire to succeed is the progenitor of real failure and…this attitude is a far more pervasive force than we realize…The craving for results in objects, or in opinions, the need to name, the need to ‘know’, which means to end the discomfort of not knowing, is the seemingly innocuous backdrop against which all our activities take place. I don’t know how to feel about the pot (she’s talking ceramics here) because I don’t know how to feel about myself. The pot and I then make a closed circle in which no new knowledge can enter precisely because it hasn’t been asked for.”

Uncertainty may not be comfortable, but it is certainly fertile – if we allow it to be so. Recently, a friend shared a blog post by a woman who quit an unfulfilling job in a community she didn’t care for, moved to Colorado, and took the better part of a year finding the right situation for herself. She characterized herself, during that year, as being “uninteresting”. Her conclusion was that all she did was worry about money and finding a job. This focus prevented her from engaging in interesting activities.  I read her post as a cautionary tale – after all, our stories are similar. What I am beginning to grasp, if imperfectly, is that the gifts of uncertainty are sometimes difficult to mine, but in the end are worth any extra digging or effort on my part. Whether there is an eventual outcome which can be labelled as a success or as a failure, I want the hallmark of this time to be growth. The treasures being unearthed are knowledge, efficacy, compassion, gratitude – of and toward both myself and this amazing world I am part of.

I’ll close my case for uncertainty with one more elegant argument, which I stumbled across online earlier this week:

“If you take away uncertainty, you take away motivation…There’s no magic to getting where we already know we can get.”
           — Pete Athans, alpinist, from National Geographic, “Famous Failures”
 
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Riding Lessons: What I Learned Over 406 Miles and 17,000+ Feet of Climb

The morning air was fresh, though not really cool, as we made our confused and circuitous ride along the Missouri riverfront in Council Bluffs, Iowa. We found ourselves amid other discombobulated riders searching, as we were, for the elusive “Dip Site”. Eventually, we found the patch of sand leading down to the water where bicyclists were dipping their bike tires in the river. If I had known we would spend our first four miles of RAGBRAI 2013 riding in the wrong direction (west) I might have been tempted to skip the traditional dip. On the other hand, I’ve always been a traditionalist when it comes to rituals like this one. So, dipping my tires at both ends of the ride was a must.

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And it was all uphill from there.

Well, at least the first few days were. At the end of day one (Council Bluffs to Harlan –  54.8 miles and 2476 feet of climb), I was tired and sunburned. My brain felt like it had been cooking inside my helmet. The minuscule amount of thought power left for my use was mostly taken up wondering what the hell I had gotten myself into. I was dreading day two (Harlan to Perry – 83 miles and 4239 feet of climb).

Miraculously, day two was incredible! Despite the sun beating down on me, I felt great and my muscles were all cooperative. I rode all but one hill of that climb – and the one hill I walked was too much for hundreds of RAGBRAIers. It was the only hill I walked all week, across the entire state (and I’m here to say that Pleasant Hill isn’t all that pleasant).  When I got off my bike that evening, I felt like I could do anything!

Day three was blessedly cool, overcast and relatively short (Perry to Des Moines, 49.9 miles and 1308 feet of climb). Day four (Des Moines to Knoxville, 49.9 miles and 2920 feet of climb), hump day, was painful. My butt hurt from sitting on the bike saddle, I had serious chafing where my right buttock met the top of my thigh, and my legs were spent. For the first time, dealing with muscle spasms in my glutes and hammies, I wondered if I had it in me to finish. Thankfully, my support team of friends, co-riders, and moms were encouraging and refused to listen to my fears. Layne (who, with her fiance Chris, hosted us for three nights) made us a dinner that tasted like a feast! I will never again underestimate the positive, soul strengthening, effect fellowship with friends over a really good meal can offer.

Day five (Knoxville to Oskaloosa, 52 miles and 2808 feet of climb) was less horrible than I anticipated. I had wisely purchased some chamois cream to help with/prevent further chafing. I rode the entire day out of grim determination and little else. But I finished, and actually enjoyed a pleasant couple of hours in the Oskaloosa town square, people watching and listening to the community orchestra.

Day six, Oskaloosa to Fairfield (52 miles and 1222 feet of climb) we had the flattest, fastest, easiest ride of the week. Woo-hoo, flying along at 18 mph felt pretty awesome!

Day seven, the final leg of the route, Fairfield to Fort Madison ( 63 miles and 2427 feet of climb) had its challenges. But by then, I knew I would finish. The pure adrenalin push to reach the Mississippi got me there well before the route was set to close at 3:00 p.m. This time, the dip site was easy to find – though still difficult to reach due to the press of other riders making the ritual dip at the end of the week. And every single one of those thousands of riders was celebrating a personal victory or accomplishment. Powerful to be among such a crowd!

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And that, my friends, is the recap of the week. However, there is so much more to share. There were moments that took my breath away, when I was overcome by the beauty surrounding me and the grace of being alive. Every morning’s ride held at least one completely perfect mile. On the first day, I raced a train coming out of Council Bluffs and left it in my dust! Crossing Lake Red Rocks on a mile long bridge. The morning Sarah rounded a bend coming out of Pella and almost hit a deer, only to have a spotted fawn trot out onto the road right in front of us. I rode with friends (Colette, Tricia, Tammy, Ryan and of course Sarah who rode the whole week with me); unexpectedly ran into friends (Mark, Andrea, Joe, Mary Beth); stayed with friends (Molly,Layne, Chris, Ari, Sara). And, of course, made new friends, most notably Ma Botkin, Sarah’s mom who travelled as our support and team mom through the hardest part of the week.

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Last summer, I shared the lessons I learned through some mishaps while preparing to ride three days of RAGBRAI 2012 , ( “Learning to Shift” which you can see, here).  Virtually everything about my life is different from what it was a year ago: no job, new city, a vacation that has lasted all summer. The RAGBRAI 2013 experience also taught me some valuable lessons – the kind that resonate with life experiences off the bike as well as on. It seems only appropriate to share them:

Know why you’re riding.

Everyone has their own reasons for attempting a ride like RAGBRAI. They range from having a week of raucous partying to raising money or awareness for an important cause. And that’s fine – I’m not about to judge. But what I do know is that I had to be clear with myself every day about my reasons for being there – or on the hard days, I would have just given up and flagged down the Sag Wagon. On Monday (Day 2), pedaling up yet another interminable hill, the silence nearly drove me batty. By the end of the week, those uphill climbs were some of my favorite moments: the shouts and laughter quieted, and the only sound other than birds was the occasional click and whir of shifting gears or another rider huffing air as we passed each other. It was in these moments that I had the most clarity of purpose – I was there to fulfill a promise I made to myself back in 1978. There were no external factors involved, only a need to prove to myself that I could do it. I never overheard anyone declaring their intention to quit while coasting down a hill – but there were plenty such conversations taking place halfway up seemingly endless inclines. Those hills were a crucible of clarity for many of us.

Is feels obvious to me that this maxim is true throughout our lives. Clarity of purpose is so important to staying the course. When I left New Mexico in June, preparing to move to Minneapolis, my dad said this: “There are gonna be days that are hard, when you’re lonely and frustrated and you wonder why the heck you did this. At those moments, try to remember how you felt back in February. That will help you weather the tough days – knowing you had good reasons for making these changes.” Already this has helped me weather those brief moments of panic and anxiety. I turned 52 the day after I finished RAGBRAI, and this is the first time I’ve truly appreciated the gift of clarity.

Every hill is unique.

Since the first time I rode a bike as an adult, hills have presented a challenge to me. RAGBRAI offered me a unique opportunity to learn how best to manage them. Over the course of the week, we rode every type of hill imaginable, and what I learned is that no two are the same. Yes, you have basic strategies for conquering hills, but the truth is, the hill you think you see as you approach may, in fact, present very differently when you’re actually riding it. Sometimes, I thought “this one will be easy” or “this one is gonna take everything I have” – and I was often wrong. You have to take each hill as it comes: adjust for the wind and momentum and freshness of your legs, find the sweet gear that works for both you and this particular hill, take it as fast or as slow as necessary to make it to the crest.

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The lesson in this is that each challenge we face in life is different from the previous challenges we’ve overcome. We can’t lull ourselves into a false sense that today’s challenge is a piece of cake because we’ve overcome such challenges before. No two will be the same. For example, I’ve moved before, and those moves have been harder or easier depending on a variety of factors. I’ve never moved at 52, without previously arranged employment, to a large metropolitan area. This move won’t be the same, though there may be some similar features. Just as you can’t anticipate exactly what each hill will require, you can’t anticipate what each life challenge will call for from you. And that’s ok – because you can’t ride up a hill you haven’t come to yet! You can’t meet life’s challenges in advance, you have to meet them as they present themselves. And each one will be unique, and call forth a unique response.

Everyone needs support…

There were a few lone rangers out there, bicyclists who towed their tents, camping gear, and clothing with them. But they were few and far between. Most riders had support teams – Sarah and I had Ma Botkin, who dropped us off each morning at the starting point, then met us at the (roughly) halfway point with food and cold beverages. At the overnight towns, Ma Botkin was there, waiting for us to roll in. She took really good care of us, anticipating our needs and generally mothering us. We also had Layne and Chris, offering us air conditioned sleep, private showers, sustenance and the love of a giant yellow lab named Ari. And we had Tammy, Tricia and Curtis who kept our support vehicle following us after Ma Botkin had to return home to Illinois. Most of all, I had Sarah – who was the mastermind of the trip plan and who, as the stronger rider, waited for me at each stop. Every time I rolled into a town, the first thing I did was seek out her jersey. And it was there, every single time, in a patch of shade, waiting patiently for me. Talk about steadfast and loyal – I can never articulate how much that means to me, or how happy and/or relieved I was each time we met up.

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The support I felt while on RAGBRAI is only one example of the amazing support I have had throughout the recent major changes in my life. Every single day since I tendered my resignation has brought a message or action of love and support from someone. And every day has been filled with goodness, light and love – even the slightly crappy ones. It overwhelms me with gratitude – and reminds me how important it is to be on other people’s teams myself. To return the gift of unconditional support whenever/wherever possible.

…But in the end, you pedal your own bike.

While support is awesome and a necessity for most of us, no one else can actually pedal the dang bike for you. Whether on flat ground, snailing up a hill or sailing down one – the bike is powered by your steam and no one else’.

One day on each RAGBRAI offers a Century Ride – an extra bit of road called the “Karras Loop” – which allows motivated riders to get 100 miles done in that day. Upon completion of their “century”, riders get a patch celebrating their accomplishment. Curiously, I heard riders talking about some others who cheated on the century ride – they found, and took, a shortcut which shaved 10 miles or so off the ride. And yet, they picked up century patches alongside riders who completed the entire loop. The people discussing it just shrugged their shoulders and shook their heads. They weren’t outraged, they were perplexed. And I agreed with them. Why would you proclaim an accomplishment you hadn’t earned? There are no prizes, most of the world knows nothing about century rides or RAGBRAI, it won’t get you a better paying job. Worse, you will always know it is just a patch that actually means nothing.

Some days, the Sag Wagon did a huge business. People had lots of reasons for not finishing a day or the week – bike trouble, injury, fatigue, heat exhaustion, or they just hit their limits. I would never call that cheating. Every mile of that ride, especially the truly painful ones, were a test of my willingness to accomplish something that really only mattered to me. I crossed the entire state of Iowa using only my own power to do so. I had a team without whom I never could have undertaken the challenge, but I was alone on my bike, mile after mile, pedaling.

In life, we don’t live well without others supporting and challenging us. But this life we’ve been given is ours to live day in and day out – no one else can live it for us. There’s no point in trying to cheat our way through it, but honest failure isn’t something to be ashamed of. Our truest successes, in the long run, are those that live within our hearts and matter most to us, not to the rest of the world.