On Living with Radical Uncertainty
For most of history, we had no choice around most things in our lives: there was only one job we could do and it would be chosen for us by our family. There was only one candidate we could marry and our parents picked them out. There was one set of people in the vicinity and they could not be avoided. There was no chance to live anywhere else; there was little one could afford to buy; there was no news from anywhere and nothing much to envy or long for. One existed between a set of very firm and very prescriptive walls. Modernity has blasted open our confines and rendered us ‘free’ at every level. We can choose whatever job we like, marry whomever we please, divorce at any time, live anywhere, question anything, obey no one. It sounds pleasant and in some ways it is; but it is also a very heavy and, at points, almost intolerable burden.
These crises are fundamental to our whole era: moments of radical uncertainty when we cannot any more explain why we are doing this rather than that, married to this person rather than someone else, doing this particular job rather than any other, living here rather than elsewhere. We realise two things above all: that no one cares and no one knows. No one cares who we are with and what we are up to; they may have some prejudices and points of view but they are essentially too taken up with their own struggles to bother with how we are living. And all the while, just to make our thoughts even more intense and agitated, we know that time is running out: that others have achieved so much more by our age, that we’re going to be old and then dead very soon. We suffer from a vertigo of choice.
How could we not be panicked at the opportunities we have wasted, the questions we haven’t thought of asking, the energies we haven’t known how to harvest? We are dying and the best part of us threatens to be buried without us ever having had the courage to explore ourselves – because we are shielding ourselves from the infinite options of adulthood, trying to remain a child and blame other people and outwards circumstances for our inactivity and fear.
We should be allowed to admit that we usually don’t have enough strength of character to master our options. Only a few hundred people ever do in any generation. It’s extremely normal – and in its way, viewed with genuine kindness, almost funny.
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