During a career management workshop I delivered recently for an MBA program, one of the students said something very interesting around the subject of being comfortable with “not knowing” that many of us could probably benefit from.
As part of the workshop, I had students discuss why they decided to pursue getting an MBA and what they expect their personal ROI (return on investment) to be.
Why do you invest in your career?
On the investment side, some students are getting their MBAs paid for by their employer; others are investing their own money. But all of them are putting in time and energy, and probably giving up some things they now enjoy, like free time, sleep, etc.
On the return side, some are expecting their MBA degrees to yield a salary bump, or a promotion, or access to positions with more decision-making authority and a more strategic view of the organization.
One of the students at the workshop raised his hand to share his perspective, which was different from most others I heard. He said that he wasn’t exactly sure what he would get from his MBA.
Wait, what?!? Are you allowed to say that out loud in a room with 50 other driven, outcome focused, manage-by-fact MBA students?
What if you don’t know what you’ll get out of it?
He went on to explain that he wanted to learn about the subjects taught in an MBA program to be a more well-rounded professional, but also—and this is the part that really resonated with me—he wanted to be open to opportunities that he may not yet be aware of.
I think many people are extremely uncomfortable with the notion of not knowing what the outcome of your actions will be. Of not knowing how things are going to work out. And who can blame you for feeling that way, right? In work, people don’t want you to “not know”. Whether it’s your managers or your clients, they want you to tell them that you know exactly what you’re going to do, and what the result will be. They’re uncomfortable with uncertainty and, as a result, so are we.
3 Reasons to be OK with “not knowing”
But I think we have an opportunity, when it comes to our careers, to allow room for uncertainty—for not knowing exactly how it’s going to shake out. Here are three reasons why you might want to be OK with “not knowing”:
1. It opens you up to things you can’t imagine right now
When I decided to get my MBA, I was a general contractor and a business owner. I felt like I definitely wanted to make a change in my career, but wasn’t sure what it would be.
In business school, I ran into people from all walks of life, and learned about careers that I didn’t even know existed. That’s how I found the area of corporate real estate, which ended up being a great fit for my engineering and construction experience combined with the MBA education I was getting. Had I been closed off to “not knowing” what I wanted to do, I might’ve not decided to apply for business school and, therefore, not gotten the chance to do the things I’m enjoying so much now in my career.
2. It keeps you aware of what’s working and what isn’t
As a career coach, I talk to many people who are not satisfied doing what they’ve done for work for a long, long time. It’s like they’ve been on a treadmill of upward mobility, or of providing for their families. Many of them feel that they haven’t really paid attention throughout their career to whether it’s what they really wanted to do.
“Not knowing” can be a scary thing , especially if you link it to the thought of “not knowing” how you’ll put food on the table, or pay for your kids’ education. But thinking of uncertainty in terms of how it will lead to our demise can paralyze you, and prevent you from feeling good about what you do for work.
When you allow yourself to consciously “not know” what your career outcome will be, you’re subconsciously seeking to “know”, and as a result you’ll also be much more aware of what’s working and not working for you right now in your career. And that awareness will keep you on the right track when it comes to your work life.
3. It’s fun
Question: Are you the type of person who likes to jump to the end of a novel to find out what happens?
Question: If someone pulled you aside and said that he could tell you exactly what will happen to you from now until you die, would you want to know?
I happen to be the type of person who answers these questions with a resounding “no.” I like to be surprised. To me, that’s what makes a joke funny, for example—thinking it’s going to go one way, and then having the punchline go somewhere completely unexpected.
It’s related to a sense of adventure, I guess. My favorite part of a movie is the opening scene, primarily because it could go anywhere from there. The possibilities are endless at that point. The ultimate “not knowing” what will happen.
Although I think it’s human nature to seek certainty, it might help to remember areas of your life where you enjoy “not knowing.” Where you actually consider it fun to “not know.” How could you translate your experience in those situations to the moments in your work life when you “don’t know” and make them more enjoyable, and even fun?
Get comfortable and enjoy the ride
The key is to embrace uncertainty for what it can bring you. I’m not saying to invite uncertainty into your career so that your life can degenerate into total chaos and pain. No, the idea isn’t for you to be unhappy. But maybe the idea is to invite a little bit of controlled chaos, and to make room for the unknown—to get comfortable with the idea of “not knowing”, and enjoy the ride a little more.