Life, as we lead it, is very uncertain. All of the myriad ingredients that constitute our daily existence are nothing but ephemeral experiences, and many wise voices over millennia have spoken about the follies of being too attached to them. As a species though, most humans tend to value what they have lost, what they don’t have, or what they can’t have much more than what they can or do. We tend to become too comfortable in who we are and how we live – be it our ability to take risks, go out of our comfort zone, make new close friends, move across continents, end or begin relationships, or just do what our heart desires most – mostly in the fear of violating established norms and society’s image of us. And just plain inertia.
The ability to deal with this uncertainty is arguably one of the most important and yet underdeveloped skills we possess. We tend not to think about how often we require it, and how critical it is to almost every aspect of our lives on a daily basis. One of my favorite quotes is from the German poet Rainer Maria Rilke, who expressed very beautifully in a letter to a young poet, some advice on how to deal with uncertainty,
I beg you, to have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves as if they were locked rooms or books written in a very foreign language. Don’t search for the answers, which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them. And the point is to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.
How we see life is a choice that we make for ourselves. We can be struck by the overwhelming pain, suffering, poverty, anger and hate that are rampant in our world today and complain about how hard things have become and how we are completely powerless to do anything about it. Or we can find the good in every day things and refuse to be sledgehammered by the reams of bad news that seem to be the staple of the world today – to step up and resolve to do whatever it is that we care for without worrying about the likely or unlikely consequences of our actions.
We will definitely make mistakes as we do so. As Peter Drucker once said, “People who don’t take risks make two big mistakes every year. People who take risks make two big mistakes every year”. The impulse to change the world is not naive – it is inherently built into every one of us and in times of fear and frustration, we would do well to remember that the smallest of actions can make a difference. After all, it is much easier to connect the dots looking backwards than forward. We must put our trust in the fact that the dots will somehow connect in our future.
For the longest time, I used to wonder what kind of questions Rilke referred to when he wrote that letter I quoted above. And one day, a serendipiteous click led me to a commencement speech by Jeff Bezos that gave me some insight into what those might have been, and I’d like to share that,
How will you use your gifts? What choices will you make?
Will inertia be your guide, or will you follow your passions?
Will you follow dogma, or will you be original?
Will you choose a life of ease, or a life of service and adventure?
Will you wilt under criticism, or will you follow your convictions?
Will you bluff it out when you’re wrong, or will you apologize?
Will you guard your heart against rejection, or will you act when you fall in love?
Will you play it safe, or will you be a little bit swashbuckling?
When it’s tough, will you give up, or will you be relentless?
Will you be a cynic, or will you be a builder?
Will you be clever at the expense of others, or will you be kind?
Take that risk. Find your voice and tell your story. We have a duty to make the world a bit more interesting than how we found it.