A few weeks ago, I was rock climbing at The Fins, in Idaho. I had my right foot balanced on a teeny tiny sliver of rock, and with my right fingers I was (lightly) pinching a few crystals of limestone. My left foot was daring to balance on a hold even smaller than my right toes were on, and my left hand was searching for another hold – anything, any little crystal or crimp or pocket – so that I could step up and get a few inches higher to the next move. And, hopefully, to a more stable and secure position.
I knew my belayer would catch me if my fingers slipped or my foot slipped or my body just decided it was done balancing for the moment. I was 50 feet up, but at most I would fall 3-5 feet – if that. I knew I was safe. In fact, I knew I could probably even make the move.
Yet I was still stuck. Sometimes, I even stepped down, going backward a move or two, to find more security and rest. Deleting my own progress and wasting my energy. What was I waiting for?
As I teetered there, I realized that what I was waiting for was certainty.
I wanted to be sure, to be certain, before I made this move that I would do it without falling.
The problem? I’m sure you can guess, but there was no way I’d be able to have 100% certainty that I could make the move before I tried it. What a catch. I was either stuck there, in limbo between the last move and the next, or I had to bail, or I had to… just go for it.
Certainty helps us feel safe, feel confident – there’s no guessing. We can prepare for what’s to come. In fact, it’s often easier for me to make a move when I know I’m going to fall. Unfortunately that doesn’t help me when I’m not sure if I’m strong enough, or flexible enough, and so on.
While I teetered there on the rock, it came to me that I was looking for certainty that I couldn’t have. And the only way to find out if I could make this move, if I had it in me, was to try it. Deep breath.
I ran through a few quick thoughts in my head.
- I don’t like to bail or give up without trying. One of my values is initiative, which I interpret to mean going for it. Another value is adventure, and asking to be lowered because I’m not sure if I can make a move or not… is not embracing adventure. It’s also not embracing curiosity, for that matter – and I was curious, can I do this?
- There was no way for me to find 100% certainty on this wall – even if I felt confident, I could slip. I could get stung by a bee as I moved, and fall! I could underestimate it. A tiny piece of rock could break away. I had to embrace the uncertainty and take on the mindset – “I don’t know exactly what this will look like, but I’m going to find out.”
- I ran through a few quick pros and cons. Pros: I could complete the move and be super proud of myself. I could fall and practice falling and feel more comfortable next time. Cons: I could fall. I could be mad at myself / disappointed in myself if I didn’t try.
The less we know what’s on the other end, the scarier a decision is. We’re not bad at making decisions – we need practice in embracing uncertainty so that we can make a decision even though we can’t predict exactly how it will turn out. Decision making forces us to confront – and embrace – uncertainty.
We can make it a bit easier with a few practices.
Check in on your values.
What decision would your values lead you to make? Prioritizing stability over, say, adventure or risk would lead you to different choices.
Embrace uncertainty, hard as it may be.
Come up with a mantra or phrase that feels encouraging and helps you lean into uncertainty. I like to remind myself that seeking uncertainty will help me learn and grow.
Use a pros and cons list.
I love pros and cons lists for a few reasons, but mainly because once we’ve written out pros and cons, we can more easily see where our values and priorities show up in a decision.
Using these practices won’t necessarily make decision making a super comfortable, easy breezy experience. Decisions may still be daunting, they may still be a bit anxiety-inducing, but you will have more agency in the decision making process than anxiety does. You will feel confident that you can embrace and manage the uncertainty that comes with a decision. As you practice, this confidence with uncertainty will grow. It may even become… enjoyable! … to seek uncertainty and lean in.
On the wall that day, I did end up deciding to try that move. I went for it. And even with butterflies in my stomach, I actually made the move and ended up finishing the route without falling at all – my first 5.11 onsight! Embracing the uncertainty paid off.