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admin-aim7/27/20 5:00 AM3 min read

You Can’t Control a Pandemic–You Can Learn from Embracing Uncertainty

2020 has been surreal. We have transitioned to a new world few people would have imagined possible when we rang in the new year and new decade on January 1. Thriving businesses are now shuttered. Life as we knew it has evaporated. And for some, rich abundance has turned into survival. Embracing uncertainty be may the last thing on most people’s minds, but in fact, it may be the key to our survival at this time. 

This experience has already taken a huge psychological toll. As a business psychologist, I’ve spent 2020 working closely with leaders across industries as they quickly and impressively adapt. As I’ve supported individuals leading through crisis, I have continued to ask myself and my clients a series of critical questions about uncertainty, influence, surrender, and control. 

What new skills and insights have you already acquired in the face of uncertainty?

If you are lucky enough to find (or make) space to reflect, being on pause can open up new time for learning. On pause, we’ve all been forced to learn new things and new ways of being. For example, I have acquired new horizontal skills (i.e., how to be a parent-teacher-professional) and a new level of vertical awareness (i.e., insights and understandings about myself, including how I make decisions under stress). However, we are all grieving – whether it’s the loss of loved ones, our financial livelihood, or life as we knew it. This, too, requires learning new skills. 

Were you really “in control” before Covid-19?

Covid-19 shifted everyone’s game, virtually overnight. Suddenly, we had to face what we couldn’t control. We also had to grapple with how profoundly challenging it is to be disrupted by something we can’t influence. Underlying our current feelings of being out of control, however, is the illusion that we were previously in control. Yes, Covid-19 upended our lives. However, in reality, we were likely never as in control as we assumed. Adapting to Covid-19 challenges us to reflect on what was and was not already beyond our influence. Again, this underscores the need to reconsider the value of embracing uncertainty.

What might you gain from surrendering control?

Like it or not, we crave structure. This is why so many of us have happily “KonMaried” our homes in recent years. It is counter-intuitive that increased structure gives us room to exhale. For example, many of us quickly surrendered to calls to shelter-in-place. Not sending our children to school and not working outside the home increased our sense of control. Now, as we’re faced with the uncertainty of not knowing when this situation will end nor how we will navigate our re-entry (e.g., sending our kids back to schools that may or may not be safe), there is more aggravation. Understanding surrender versus control is a critical step in negotiating our current situation and what lies ahead.

What is in your control while embracing uncertainty?

Think of your life as three concentric circles. At the center is what you control, the middle is what you can influence, and the outer ring is that with which you’re concerned. With discipline, you can focus your time on what you can control (e.g., what you eat, how you dress, how you engage in self-care during this challenging time, etc.). Focusing on what concerns you but can’t control is asking for heightened stress and frustration.

As we approach the pandemic’s half-year mark, we now know that the pandemic is unlikely to be swiftly resolved. It may linger for years but hopefully, with the arrival of viable vaccines and treatments, as a more manageable health issue. The more we can deepen awareness of our psychology and enhance our capacity to respond to uncertainty, the more agile we will become.