Of one thing I’m certain: until the day I die, I don’t ever want to be sure what’s going to happen next.
I’m a shitty writer
I spend at least a couple of hours every day writing.
And it may not surprise you to learn that I never know what I’m about to write about until I’m actually writing. Sometimes I think I know. And sometimes I’m dead certain. But once my fingers start moving, I am always proved wrong. Every single time.
For a long time, this actually bothered me. Really bothered me
Not because I didn’t like the results of my dive-in-and-figure-it-out-as-you-go approach, but more because I felt like I should be able to do it the other way. To think of a topic, to brainstorm on it, to structure a piece of writing, and then to execute. That’s what they told to do at school.
They told me this kind of left-brained approach was what smart people did. They sold it as more streamlined, effective, organised, efficient… but even back then I remember thinking it was a crock of shit. I got the distinct impression that all that anal preparation everybody treated as sacred was not actually out any desire to do great work, but instead out of a fear of writing. A fear of coming out with anything real, anything they hadn’t approved of in advance. A fear of… art.
Still, slag it of as I might… I tried it. Many, many, many times. And every time I failed at it – producing either incredibly shitty, forced writing, or giving up and just watching telly – I felt worse about myself as both a writer and a human being.
Until at some point I realised that those couple of hours I spent diving and writing every day – with zero clue what was about to come out – were the best parts of my day. And there had to be a reason for it.
There was. I was dancing with uncertainty.
In the face of uncertainty
These days, not only do I not try to plan what I’m going to write about, I don’t even listen to the voice in my head when it makes suggestions. I make myself wait until my laptop is in front of me, and I type. And I watch. And I shape. And that’s that.
But there’s a bigger reason behind this approach:
When I sit down not having the foggiest idea what I’m about to write – but mashing my fingers on the keyboard in the face of that uncertainty – I know I’m about to discover something. I know I’m about to be surprised. I know that in a couple of hours I’ll be a slightly different person because of what came out of me.
And isn’t surprise – which is only possible through uncertainty – what makes life interesting? When something happens just the way you expected it would, it’s nice, sure, but it’s kind of boring, no?
I don’t want to know what I’m about to do next. And not just on the page, but in life.
Life = story
I’m as guilty as anyone of this social crime.
I’ll be talking to my mum or my friend or whoever, and I’ll start telling a “story.” Halfway through telling I’ll realise a lot of the details I’ve given were not really relevant, and now that I think of it, it’s not really a story… more just some things that happened that interested me because they were about me. And sometimes I’ll finish it and sometimes I won’t.
But what is it that makes something a story, rather than just a thing that happened, a series of events?
It’s actually quite simple. One word: tension.
Or more specifically, the tension between what you thought was going to happen and what then actually did happen.
So, imagine that you’re somebody who wears glasses. You wake up in the morning in plenty of time for work, reach for your glasses, put them on, go to the toilet, flush it, go downstairs, drink a glass of water…
This is not a story. Why? No expectations have been violated yet.
On the other hand, imagine that you wake up an hour later than you meant to, reach for your glasses, accidentally knock them off the bed-side table, and then tread on them as you look for them. Now what are you going to do? You’re already going to be late for work as it is, but you can’t do a day’s work without your glasses. Then you remember that last summer you bought some prescription sunglasses and even though it’s the middle of winter you decide that’s the best choice you have. You scour the house for them, the clock ticking. Finally, you find them in the most random place imaginable, and you set off. You make it to work in the nick of the time. Your boss calls you into her office. She sounds angry. You think she’s going to ask you why the hell you’re wearing sunglasses. You get ready to apologise and explain yourself, but instead she pulls out a pair from her drawer and says that from now on Fridays will be shades-day. She applauds you for having the cajones to express yourself so freely. She asks you if you’re doing anything for dinner tonight. You say “no” and that you’d love to see her – you’ve liked her for a long time. You smile as you leave her office, until you remember that you promised on your life that tonight you’d help your nephew with his school project that has to be handed in tomorrow…WILL YOU CHOOSE?
Well, now you’ve got yourself a story. Because rather than everything going the way the you expected it to, your expectations kept being violated, causing you to keep adapting to the new situation. You kept being forced to grow.
Whilst the first version – where everything went as planned – might have ended up as an easier, more carefree morning, you’ve got to admit that the second version where nothing went as expected was a lot more interesting. It was a better story.
And real life is no different.
In real life, if everything happened just the way we expected it, just the way it was ‘supposed to’, 100% of the time, we’d all be incredibly bored. We wouldn’t learn. We wouldn’t grow. It’d be horrible.
We need uncertainty.
Dance with uncertainty
Why then do we crave certainty? Because we have our signals crossed.
We seek certainty in all we do. We put certainty on a pedestal. We direct all our energies into making the world conform to our expectations. We want to completely rule out unpleasant surprises.
But it never works. It just makes us miserable.
The truth is that – to use one half of a well-worn cliche – the only certainty in life is death. Everything else is up for debate. Everything else. There is nothing else certain. But guess what? That’s fine!
If everything is uncertain – and it is – then doesn’t it make for more sense to learn to dance with uncertainty than to hope and wish for a certainty that will never come?
Because when you resist uncertainty, the result is not more certainty. It’s more pain. But when you choose to allow uncertainty – to dance with it – you paradoxically feel more certain than ever. Not perhaps of specific things going a specific way, but a more holistic certainty that whatever happens – good or bad – you’ll be absolutely fine.
Don’t obsess over certatiny. Dance with uncertainty.